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“The Whole Gospel is Outside of Us” – My Journey to Lutheranism

This article was originally written in 2009 as a series of blog posts for the website New Reformation Press, which has now merged into the 1517 Legacy Project.  Since the blog posts are no longer at the new website, and I have been asked about what drew me to Lutheranism, I have decided to repost it here.

Somewhere near the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008 I was quietly standing on the verge of utter despair.

At that point I really feared that Christ’s terrifying words “Depart from me, I never knew you” might be for me.  And there was nothing I could do about it.  I was a Christian, but a poor excuse for a Christian.  I looked at my life and everything I did was tainted with sin.  Even the best works I did were tainted with sin.  My heart was desperately wicked and I did not love God with all my heart.  And worst of all, there was something inside me that hated God, that had contempt for Him. How could I possibly be saved?

Maybe I was fooling myself about being a Christian.  The lives of true Christians kept getting better and better, and I felt as though mine was getting worse and worse.  My “growth in holiness” and in love for God was supposed to assure me that I really was a child of God.  But I did not see this.  All I saw was sin.  And I despaired that the salvation offered in Christ was really for me.  Salvation was for people who really believed.  And I was not sure I really believed.  How could I be a true believer when I continued to sin and sin and sin and abuse the grace of God?  How could I be a true believer if everything within me was sin?

*     *     *

It’s hard to summarize my spiritual life.  I still struggle to make sense of it all.  But I can say this: when I discovered the Reformation, my eyes stopped looking at myself and my faith and my sincerity, and raised to look at Christ alone.  I finally understood that Christ’s death on the cross was really, truly for me, after years and years and years of struggling to find assurance of salvation.

I grew up in American evangelicalism of a moderately fundamentalist stripe.  The church I grew up in instilled in me the importance of God’s Word.  They emphasized that Jesus died on the cross for all our sins, that good works could not save us and that we were saved through faith alone.

This sounds great on paper.  The problem was that the way faith was defined it became a work.  My church taught decision theology – being born again meant praying the “sinner’s prayer” to accept Jesus into your heart and committing your life to Him.  If you prayed that prayer and meant it, then you were a child of God – born again.  Your life would be radically transformed and you could be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that you were going to heaven.

I probably don’t have to tell you that it didn’t quite work that way.  At least not for me.

According to my mother, I first “prayed the prayer” when I was six years old.  The problem was that even a few years later I had no memory of the event.  And no matter how many times I tried to “make sure of my salvation” by praying the prayer again or recommitting my life to God, I was in doubt as to whether I really meant it or was really sincere.

No matter where I was taught to look for assurance of salvation – be it by family members or people at my church or later, Bible teachers on the Internet – I was always taught to look inside myself.  The decision theology I grew up with taught me to look at my sincere free will decision.  Later I read various Bible teachers who repudiated decision theology but instead taught me to look to my works and my growth in holiness to determine whether or not I was really saved.

Well-meaning folks at my church said that if only one would surrender everything in one’s life to God like they had, one would have peace and joy and freedom from doubt, just like them. My problem was that I felt powerless to surrender in this way.  I did not have this power.  There was something inside me, even as a Christian, that would not submit to God’s Law, not even for a second, no matter how committed I tried to be.  I hated it, because I wanted desperately to please the God that I loved.  But there was always sin in my life that would not go away.

Somewhere down the line I discovered what can only be called a form of Christian mysticism.  It had to do with “listening to what God is saying to you personally,” or “listening to God’s still small voice speaking to your heart.”  I came to believe that God regularly spoke directly to my heart. And how could I not be a true Christian if God was working so powerfully in my life in this way?  Yet I always wondered whether what I was hearing was really God, or just my own heart.

The only time I had any real peace was when I looked outside of myself to Christ.  My favorite hymns were the ones that pointed to Christ alone. But in evangelicalism, these things were so often overshadowed by the hymns and praise songs and teaching that pointed me to myself – to my feelings, to my obedience, to my acts of worship, to my commitment.

At some point I came across a doctrine known as Christian Hedonism.  Many people seem to find this doctrine wonderful and comforting.  I did too at first.  And then it became the most terrifying Law.

According to those who promote this teaching, how do you know you are saved?  Because you love God.  Because you find your satisfaction in God.  Because you find your joy in God.  If these things are not true of you, then you will not be saved.  Period.  Oh, of course we are saved by grace alone.  But if God truly regenerates you then these things will be true of you.

Well, these things were not true of me.  I desperately wanted them to be, but they weren’t.  The fact was that I did not love God with my whole heart.  Every time I sinned in thought, word or deed – by what I had done or what I had left undone – I did not love God with my whole heart.  Worse, even the good things I did were tainted with evil motives.  And worse still, the Christian Hedonism teaching had associated with it a pietistic form of Calvinism – which was also promoted by the systematic theology text a Reformed-leaning friend had given me – and I ended up wondering if I was one of those false believers who were predestined to go to hell.

So I found myself where I was at the beginning of this article – on the verge of utter despair.  And then sometime in February 2008 I found the blog of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk.

Michael Spencer is not your typical evangelical.  Anyone who has read his blog knows this.  His writing fascinated me.  He said things about certain aspects of evangelicalism that I had thought in my heart but had been too afraid to say out loud for fear of being seen as heretical. And he pointed me to an article that would forever change my life.

The article was written by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt and it was called “Reclaiming the Doctrine of Justification.”  The following paragraph from that article was mind-blowing for me at the time:

If the Christian is reading the Law and says, “This is not yet true of me: I don’t love God with all my heart, and I certainly don’t love my neighbor as I love myself. In fact, just today I failed to help a poor chap on the side of the road who was having car trouble. I must not yet be a Christian,” here the reformers would counsel, “You hurry back to the second use of the law and flee to Christ where sanctification is truly, completely, and perfectly located.” After this experience, the believer will feel a greater sense of freedom to obey, and it is the only way that one will ever feel free to obey.…The answer of the Higher Life movement to the struggling Christian is, “Surrender more,” or, ” What are you holding back from the Lord?” The Reformation answer is different.

Prior to this time I thought all Lutherans – and probably most Presbyterians and anyone who baptized infants – were unsaved liberals (and if any of them were saved it was in spite of their Lutheranism or Reformed ideas).  Dr. Rosenbladt shattered this conception completely, as did the Reformed folks with him on the White Horse Inn radio program.  I started listening to every episode of the White Horse Inn I could get my hands on.  Some of the things that the folks on that program said shocked me.  They criticized decision theology and revivalism. They criticized pietism. They criticized my view of the end times.  They criticized the evangelical tendency to focus on self in worship.  And they introduced me to the concept of the distinction between Law and Gospel.  The continuing theme of that program is the Reformation concept of extra nos – “the whole Gospel is outside of us.”

What does this mean? The Gospel is not about my inner transformation or personal experience.  It is not about what Christ is doing inside of me, but what Christ did FOR me.  All I contribute to my salvation is my sin.   I found that my Arminian concerns about “free will” and “making a decision” had fallen by the wayside in favor of what Scripture actually says about these things.  We are dead in our trespasses and sins, and until God makes us alive and gives us faith we have no ability to believe.  God does not save us because we make a decision to believe, but because of His grace in Christ.  At that point I was well on my way to becoming Reformed.  I was reading everything by Michael Horton that I could get my hands on.  It was such a relief to know that I was not saved because of something I had done, but solely because of Christ’s mercy.

Yet there were certain things about Calvinism that I had a hard time reconciling with Scripture, chief among them the idea that Christ did not die for the sins of the whole world, but only for the elect.  The “Five Points of Calvinism” are very logically coherent.  However, I was not sure that some of them were entirely Biblical.  I had a hard time with this despite the clever ways the Reformed tried to get around it.  I remember realizing that if I accepted Limited Atonement I could not honestly say to someone, “Christ died for YOUR sins” – because it might not really be true.

After I had been listening to the White Horse Inn for a while, I read on Kim Riddlebarger’s blog about the cancellation of the Lutheran radio program Issues, Etc. and the fact that the program was going to come back on the air.  So I resolved to start listening when they started up again, even if I was a bit skeptical at first.  I found Lutheran theology to be remarkably comforting and their view on the extent of the Atonement to be much more in line with what Scripture actually taught.  But the one thing that was a real stumbling block for me was the idea of baptismal regeneration.  It seemed too much like adding a work to salvation.  I remember thinking, “I don’t think I could ever believe THAT.  It would be way too much of a stretch.”

So I started listening, and as I said, I was skeptical at first.  But after weeks of listening to Pastor Wilken and his guests, I became much less skeptical.  Through Issues, Etc. I found other radio shows such as Fighting for the Faith, The God Whisperers and Table Talk Radio.  Somehow I discovered an online forum called the Wittenberg Trail where I could ask questions about what Lutherans believed and how that fit in with the Scriptures.

From all of these things I came to realize this – confessional Lutherans were literally the most Christ-centered people around.  They always pointed me to Christ and not to myself.  I came to understand that Baptism was Gospel and not Law.  That the idea of Baptism as an “outward sign of an inward commitment” was something foreign to the Scriptures and a relatively recent innovation in church history.  Baptism was not just water – it was water combined with the Word of Christ.  If faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ, it was not that big of a stretch to believe that that Word could work through physical means appointed by Christ.

When I read passages about Baptism in this light, everything started to fall into place.  Most crucial was Romans 6:1-4:

What shall we say then?  Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?  By no means!  How can we who died to sin still live in it?  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

I had been baptized years before when I was barely out of my teens.  I had no idea what my baptism meant at the time.  I thought it was all about my obedience and commitment.  But all the Scriptures that talk about what Baptism means talk about it as being God’s work, not our work.  God had objectively, through external means, put His name – the name of the Triune God – upon me in Baptism.

It was around September 2008 that I realized, “I think I’m becoming a Lutheran.”  But I was still attending an evangelical church.  It happened that after Christmas was over I decided to visit an LCMS church in my area.  It was the closest of three that had been recommended to me by a pastor on the Wittenberg Trail.

I can’t really say “I didn’t know what to expect” because I did.  All those months of listening to Issues, Etc and all the other Lutheran podcasts – as well as using the Treasury of Daily Prayer for a month or so beforehand! – had taught me exactly what to expect, though not being used to liturgical worship I found myself fumbling around to figure out where I was in several parts of the service.

I found myself very emotionally moved, in particular, by corporate confession and absolution. Why?  Because finally, there was open, public honesty.  No coming before God and others pretending to have it all together, like I did on so many Sundays before that.  I was coming to God with only my sin because it was all I had to offer Him.  I was publicly admitting – in church! – along with a hundred or so other people, that I had not loved God with my whole heart, that I justly deserved His punishment and that all I could do was plead for mercy.

And for the first time I heard those wonderful words, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

The whole service was saturated in Scripture from beginning to end.  From beginning to end everything pointed to Christ –for me – and not to what was happening inside of me.

I had the opportunity to speak briefly with the pastor at the end of the service.  I told him that I was an evangelical who had discovered Lutheranism on the Internet through such programs as Issues, Etc, that I was VERY interested in Lutheranism and that I had wanted to see it for myself.  I remember him asking me, “Was it what you expected?”

And my answer was a somewhat wide-eyed “Yes.”

I started attending Bible study every Sunday at this church, though it was a few more months before I started attending services there exclusively.  I continued to learn and grow in my understanding of the faith.  But I knew I was finally home.

In Lutheranism there is no more wondering if I am sincere enough.  No more wondering whether I really believe.  No more wondering how God really sees me.  I know that my salvation was and is entirely His work.  He put His name on me in Baptism, and He sustains my faith through the hearing of His Word and the receiving of His Sacraments.

I dare not trust in anything inside of myself.  Instead, I look entirely outside of myself to Christ alone – who was born for me, lived a perfect and sinless life for me, died for me, and was raised to life again for me.

Even for me.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Assurance, Baptism, Calvinism, Decision Theology, Faith, Grace, Justification, Lutheran Distinctives.

“I Do Not Run to the Cross”

So that our readers may the better perceive our teaching I shall clearly and broadly describe it. We treat of the forgiveness of sins in two ways. First, how it is achieved and won. Second, how it is distributed and given to us. Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true. But he has not distributed or given it on the cross. He has not won it in the supper or sacrament. There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached. He has won it once for all on the cross. But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end of the world. For inasmuch as he had determined once to achieve it, it made no difference to him whether he distributed it before or after, through his Word, as can easily be proved from Scripture. But now there is neither need nor time to do so.

If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there. Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either. But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross. Therefore, Luther has rightly taught that whoever has a bad conscience from his sins should go to the sacrament and obtain comfort, not because of the bread and wine, not because of the body and blood of Christ, but because of the word which in the sacrament offers, presents, and gives the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for me. Is that not clear enough?

Writing from Martin Luther, “Against the Heavenly Prophets,” pp. 213-14 in vol. 40 of Luther’s Works, American Edition, edited by Conrad Bergendoff, copyright (C) 1958 Augsburg Fortress Press.  Quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer, Concordia Publishing House, 2008, pp. 191-192.

Posted in Grace, Lord's Supper, Lutheran Distinctives, Means of Grace, Sacraments.

Today Is My Baptismal Birthday

On April 4, 1999 – at an Easter sunrise service, at the age of twenty – I was baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

I had absolutely no clue what was happening to me.  Of course, I thought I did at the time, and I thought what was happening was my work. As a good baptist evangelical, I was choosing to be baptized to show my obedience to Christ now that I had accepted Him as my Lord and Savior.  For all I knew, Baptism was a symbol of something that had already happened in my heart.  I had “accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior” years before this, of course (and more than once), but at this point I had begun to recognize that the Bible considers Baptism to be important, and my increasing mysticism made me feel like enough of a “real Christian” to actually take this fateful step of discipleship.

I think for most baptists (and I use the lower-case “b” as this describes most non-denominational fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants), Baptism is something that you do at a certain point in your life and then never really think about much again.  In your Baptism you are showing/telling the world that you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and that you are deciding to live for Him from that point on.

But the Scriptures know nothing of this explanation of Baptism.  They do not describe it as a symbol of an already-present reality or a work that you do to show your obedience; they describe it as something that God does to you and for you.  In Baptism you are buried and raised with Christ (Romans 6:1-4, Colossians 2:11-12).  In Baptism you receive the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  Christ cleanses you by washing you with water and the Word (Ephesians 5:25-27).  You are born again of water and the Spirit (John 3:5).  Baptism saves you through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21-22).

In my Baptism fourteen years ago, the name of the triune God was placed upon me, and now I belong to Him.  My relationship with God is not dependent upon my obedience, or on how close I feel to Him, or even on some shaky and uncertain decision to accept Christ into my heart.  My relationship with God is dependent upon Christ and His work alone.  Making the sign of the cross reminds me of this on a daily basis: I am baptized into Christ.  He alone is my salvation.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Assurance, Baptism, Decision Theology, Grace, Means of Grace, Sacraments.

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God Surrendered All For You in Jesus Christ (Happy New Year!)

My usual New Year’s resolution is to not make any resolutions.  (Yes, I know that statement is self-defeating.)  This year, for some reason I decided to mix it up a little bit…so for 2013 one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write more at this blog!  Who knows, maybe it will actually happen…

I’ve noticed quite a few Christians on Twitter making resolutions to surrender all to God this year, or exhorting others to do the same.  They’re going to pray more.  They’re going to read Scripture more.  They’re going to share the Gospel more.  You name it, they’re going to do it.

Maybe you will do those things more this year, by the grace of God.  And these things are all wonderful things that we should as Christians aspire to.

But surrendering all to God…it won’t happen.  I can guarantee that you will fail at that endeavor, because you are a sinner.  Whether you are a Christian or not, you still sin daily in thought, word and deed.

And the good news is, that is why Jesus Christ came.  In Jesus Christ, God surrendered all for you.  He perfectly surrendered to the Father for all the times you failed to surrender to the Father.  He surrendered His very life on the cross so that you might have life everlasting.

So…repent.  Daily.  Repent of your failure to keep God’s holy commandments.  And trust that Jesus Christ kept God’s holy commandments perfectly in your place.  In Him there is forgiveness, life and salvation.

Posted in Faith, Grace.

“All I have is my sins!”

In truth, believing the Gospel would be an immeasurably great and difficult task for us if God were not to accomplish it within us.  But suppose it were not so exceedingly great and difficult.  Even if it were an easy condition that God had proposed to us for our salvation, our salvation would not be a gift; God would not have given us His Son, but would merely have offered Him to us with a certain restricting condition.  But that is not God’s way.  The apostle Paul says, “[They] are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  We are justified gratuitously, without any contribution on our part – without even the least thing being required of us.

Accordingly, we poor sinners praise God for the place of refuge He has prepared for us, to which we can flee even when we have to come to Him as completely lost, dead broke beggars, who have not the slightest ability to offer to God something that we have achieved.

Blessed are we!  We have a Gospel that proclaims: “Here is indeed a refuge for sinners!”  Jesus Christ is the faithful Savior, to whom we all can flee.  And we should offer Him nothing more than to say, “Here are my sins!”

Then Christ will ask me, so to speak, “Do you not have anything more?”

And I will answer, “No, all I have is my sins!”

Then He will say, “Fine, then you are the right one for Me.”

As soon as someone comes up and wants to offer Him something, then that person is denying the Lord Jesus.  “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  And that name is the dear name of Jesus.  So remember: we should regard it as a horrible corruption of the Gospel to treat the command to believe as a condition of a person’s justification and salvation.

From C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010, p. 299 (emphases in original).

Posted in Decision Theology, Faith, Justification, Law and Gospel.

Is the Gospel Mere Historical Information?

Christians today are concerned with one central issue: Where in the world is God?  How can I be reassured of his love in the face of the complexities and traumas of my life?…the historic answer of the heirs of the reformation has been: in the gospel.  Modern Evangelicals, however, do not see the gospel as the means of applying the love of God to the sinner as much as they see it as information about the love of God.  The gospel is understood to be an “offer of grace,” rather than the “application of grace.”  It has no power itself, the power is in your decision to accept it.

In contrast, the Lutheran church has always stressed that the gospel is both the offer of grace and the means of its application.  After dealing with the central doctrine of justification by grace through faith, that is, that God will consider our faith in Jesus as righteousness, the Augsburg Confession turns immediately to the application of salvation:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the gospel. And the gospel teaches that we have a gracious God, not by our own merits but by the merit of Christ, when we believe this. (Augsburg Confession: Article V. “The Office of the Ministry”)

….Evangelical Christians today tend to see the gospel as mere historical data. Accordingly, if you want to take advantage of this information you do it by making a decision to commit yourself to Jesus. The Bible has a dramatically different view; here the shoe is on the other foot. God takes the initiative, just as he did in the incarnation of his Son.

The gospel is not just historical information, but the living power of the living God. Jesus said: “The words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). No wonder then that Paul saw the gospel not as a static message but as life-giving power: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

From Sanctification: Christ in Action by Harold L. Senkbeil, Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1989, pp. 166-7.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Decision Theology, Faith, Grace, Justification, Lutheran Distinctives, Means of Grace.

Martin Luther on the Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel

If any of you are well versed in this art, I mean, if any of you can rightly make this distinction, he would deserve to be called a doctor of theology.  For Law and Gospel must be distinguished from each other.  The role of the Law is to terrify men, to drive them crazy and to despair – especially rude and vulgar people – until they realize they can do neither what the Law demands nor achieve God’s favor.  That will make them despair of themselves.  For they can never accomplish that goal – to obtain God’s favor by their own efforts – and keep the Law.  I recall when Dr. Staupitz said to me on a certain occasion: “More than a thousand times I have lied to God, promising that I would become godly.  But I never did what I promised.  I will never again resolve to become godly, for I see that I cannot carry out my resolution.  I want to quit lying to God.”  That was also my experience under the papacy: I was very anxious to become godly, but how long did it last?  Until I had finished reading the Mass.  An hour later I was more evil than before.  This state of affairs goes on and on until a person becomes quite weary and is forced to say, ” I have had it up to here with being godly according to Moses and the Law.  I am going to follow another Preacher, who says to me, ‘Come to Me, if you labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ ” ….

This Preacher does not teach that you can love God or that you must act and live a certain way.  Rather, He tells you how to be godly in God’s eyes and how to be saved, despite the fact that you cannot do as you should.  This kind of preaching is wholly different from the teaching of the Law of Moses, which deals only with works.  The Law says, “You shall not sin….Go and be godly….Do this, do that….” But Christ says, “Accept the fact that you are not godly.  But I have been godly in your stead.”

Quoted in Walther, C.F.W., Law and Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible.  St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010, p. 27-28.  Cf. Luther’s Works: American Edition, Volume 23:271-73.


Posted in Grace, Law and Gospel, Quotes.

The Answer to Your Sin and Death

Look to Christ hanging on the altar of the Cross and pouring out His precious blood for your sins (1 John 1:7).  The blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cleanses you from all sin: He is the propitiation for your sins and for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2).  For He did not come into the world to be ministered to but to minister and to give His life as a ransom and price for the sins of many (Matt. 20:28).  And lest any doubt arise or remain for you in this matter, from heaven, the throne of Truth, that most sweet and consoling name of Jesus, was brought by an angel, the spirit of Truth, proclaiming to us before He was conceived that He is our Mediator.

Indeed, is Jesus anything other than a Savior?  It is for this reason that He was given the name of Christ because He saves His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).  This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29).  This is Jesus Christ who came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15).  This is the High Priest of the New Testament, who has given Himself up for our sins as a sweet smelling offering and sacrifice to God (Eph 5:2).  It was Christ who shed His own blood for the remission of sins (Matt. 26:28), who bore our sins in His own body on the Cross (1 Pet 2:24), who was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (Isa 53:5).  The Lord laid on Him, as a stream made to rush headlong onto Him, the sins of us all.  God made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us (2 Cor 5:21).  That is, He imputed to Him our sins.  He placed on Him the punishment of our sins.  He made Him a sacrifice for our sins.  Nor did Christ oppose this counsel and decree of the heavenly Father but carried out His will with the readiest mind imaginable.  He gave Himself for our sins (Gal 1:4).  He loved us and gave Himself for us (Gal 2:20).  There is a certain Baptism I wish to be baptized with, He said, and how great is My distress until it be accomplished (Luke 12:50).  This was the Baptism of His Cross and distress in which our most kind Savior was wholly immersed for no other reason than His immeasurable and ineffable love toward us.  It was this that so distressed Him.

No matter how great the outward pain in His suffering, nevertheless, you must know that His inward love for us was greater and more ardent.  Indeed, He was prepared to suffer more for our sins if the price He paid for our redemption did not seem sufficient.  But we should not doubt the sufficiency of that price, a redemption that is absolutely complete with Him.  As Bernard says, “for not a drop but a stream of blood flowed abundantly from the five wounds of His body.”  Indeed, Christ called out that all things were finished on the Cross and by the Cross.  Therefore He made through Himself a full and perfect purification for our sins (Heb 1:3) and by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified (Heb 10:14).  By His blood He cleanses us from our sins (1 John 1:7).  Therefore, believe such plain, clear, and carefully expressed words of the Holy Spirit and firmly know that the suffering and death of Christ made a complete and sufficient satisfaction for your sins.

From Johann Gerhard (first pub. 1611, translated by Carl Beckwith), Handbook of Consolations: For the Fears and Trials that Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death.  Eugene: WIPF and Stock, 2009, pp. 11-12.

Posted in Faith, Grace, Justification.

On Lutheran Use of the Word “Reformed”

I have noticed that many Lutherans – especially lifelong Lutherans – have a tendency to refer to every Christian who is not Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox as “Reformed.”

Can we please stop doing this?

In the wider Protestant world, the term “Reformed” specifically means “Calvinist.” In some circles, the word “Reformed” is even narrower than that – it refers to a specific type of confessional Calvinist.  So when I hear Lutherans referring to American evangelicals (and even Pentecostals/charismatics) as “Reformed”, I cringe a little bit.  Most of those folks are not Calvinists by any stretch of the imagination, and will not hesitate to let you know that.  And I cringe more than a little bit when Lutherans say “the Reformed believe X” when X is a belief that only an American evangelical – and no confessional Calvinist – would actually hold.

I understand why Lutherans use the term in such a broad way.  Sometimes it’s for the sake of convenience when we are speaking among ourselves, as simply using the term “Protestant” to refer only to Calvinists and Arminians and not Lutherans can be confusing to some.  And historically, the non-Lutheran Protestant denominations ultimately – in one way or another – are theological descendants of the original Calvinists of the 16th century.

But neither of these reasons really excuse a practice that is generally unhelpful when one is actually interacting with Calvinists or Arminians.  At best it causes confusion and at worst it can cause unnecessary offense – to the point where the Calvinist or Arminian writes off you and Lutherans in general as being ignorant of what they really believe.

A while ago I was listening to a lecture on the two natures in Christ by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt of White Horse Inn fame, at the end of which (during a question and answer session) he takes Lutheran pastors and professors to task for their use of the word “Reformed” to refer to Wesleyan evangelicals (and conversely, for using the term “evangelical” to refer to Calvinists). Here’s some of what he (himself an LCMS pastor and professor) had to say:

If you’re in a wider Christian circle and you do what our LCMS pastors do – and they’ve been trained to do it – I’m going to be speaking to a group of them back in Minneapolis and I’m gonna tell them to repent of this – if you’re in front of a broad Christian group, and there are a lot of Calvinists there, and you call them evangelicals, they’ll be totally offended.  To them that means Arminian.  They might just walk out of the room because they think you’re an idiot – an uneducated idiot.  And correlatively, on the other side, if you have a large evangelical gathering and you call them Calvinists, their hands will be in the air and they’ll say “I am not – whatever I am, I’m not one of those.”…

So as you say “evangelical” today, it usually means Arminian/Wesleyan….When you say “Reformed”, it means one thing, and only one thing – 120 proof Calvinism.  Now we even have in our books in the LCMS guys – professors – who use (or have used) the word “Reformed” to mean everybody who isn’t Lutheran or Roman Catholic.  Disaster.  Disaster.  We’ve got to stop doing that.  I talk to seminarians – they still blunder into it – and so I try as politely as I can to say, “You want to distinguish those.”  Because if you’re speaking in a broader Christian audience, you want to be precise about that, or you’ll have no idea why fifty percent of the room packs up its briefcases and walks out the back door.  But they will.

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Calvinism, Pet Peeves, The Church.

Why I am Not a Big Fan of Screens in Church

On this Friday’s episode of Worldview Everlasting, Pastor Jonathan Fisk dealt in part with the use of technology in the Divine Service. One of the things he talked about was the use of screens in church, and he made some really great points.  To elaborate on his comments as one who has personal experience with screens in (a non-Lutheran) church, here are a few observations and reasons why I am not a big fan of using them in a Lutheran service:

1. The potential for idolatry. No, I’m not saying that every church or pastor that uses a big screen or Power Point slides during their service is necessarily guilty of idolatry.  But when the people of a church finds themselves thinking things like “we can’t reach this generation without this kind of technology”, or when a pastor finds himself freaking out when the Power Point presentation crashes two minutes before the service starts, they might be.  I have heard people actually say that the glitches in their church’s Power Point presentation were caused by the devil.  Really?  I think Satan is more interested in making us think that the Power Point presentation is necessary in some way, and that people will either not believe in Christ without it or that the church will die without it.

God does not need a big screen or a Power Point presentation.  His Holy Spirit is the one who creates faith in our hearts through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.  There will not be one more person in heaven because a pastor decided to supplement his sermon with Power Point slides or because a church decided to put the lyrics of all their songs on a big screen.  Conversely, there will not be one more person in hell because a pastor or church decided NOT to do these things.  When we think that our human activity apart from the Word of God makes the difference between heaven and hell, we are no longer trusting in God alone to save sinners.  We are guilty of idolatry and need to repent.

2. Making the screen the focal point of the service. Instead of the focal point of the service being the pulpit and the altar and the baptismal font – the places where the Word is proclaimed and the gifts of God are distributed – the focal point is the big screen at the front of the sanctuary.  Instead of drawing people’s attention to the place where God comes down to us, the screen draws people’s attention to the things WE are doing.  If there is a way to NOT make the screen the focal point, I would be very interested to hear how that could be done.

3. Detaching lyrics from the actual musical notes to which those lyrics are sung. I have learned the tune of many a Lutheran hymn simply because the words AND musical notes were available to me in the hymnal.  Musical notes are generally not projected on a screen, for copyright reasons – and thus the only songs that are projected onto the screen are usually 1) very simple praise songs with little depth and/or 2) songs with tunes that everyone knows already.  Since big screens are purported to be an “outreach” tool, how does it help outsiders to the church if everyone expects them to already know the tunes of all the songs that are being sung?  Had it not been for the hymnal and its inclusion of the musical notes I would have been hopelessly lost when I first started attending a Lutheran church – where the majority of the hymns were hymns I did not know.

“But what about the fact that most people don’t know how to read music to begin with?”  That’s more of a commentary on the current state of education in this country.  Drawing the conclusion that “thus we should completely abandon written music in church” does not follow.  The fact that many (maybe even most?) people nowadays are NOT able to read music is no excuse for making it more difficult for the rest of us who are.  I have found that my ability to read the music of a tune unfamiliar to the people around me makes it easier for them to catch on to the melody.  Take the hymnal away and I might be just as lost as anyone else.  Without the written music it makes it much harder for people to learn new or unfamiliar songs that have any theological depth.

So those are a few of the reasons why I am not a big fan of screens in church.  You may disagree with me, and that’s fine.  Or you may feel the same way as I do but for other reasons.  Feel free to post your comments.  And read this article by Pastor Fisk.  Great stuff.

Posted in Culture, Liturgy, The Church, Web/Tech, Worship.