It is summertime again. The flowers are blooming. The sun is warm and bright. Everything is alive and active. It causes us to reflect on this creation that God has made. It causes us sometimes to wonder at it all. Why did God make it? Why is it all here? There can be no complete answer to that. God does not always explain Himself or give us reasons why He does things. However, there are some things He does say about what His creation is for. An early church theologian named Gregory of Nyssa, a close friend of Gregory of Nazianzus who I have referenced before, discusses creation and man’s place within it. The very act of God creating the world and how He goes about it, tells us something about this world that we live in. He looks at why man is created last out of all of the things God creates:
“For not as yet had that great and precious thing, man, come into the world of being; it was not to be looked for that the ruler should appear before the subjects of his rule; but when his dominion was prepared, the next step was that the king should be manifested. When, then, the Maker of all had prepared beforehand, as it were, a royal lodging for the future king (and this was the land, and islands, and sea, and the heaven arching like a roof over them), and when all kinds of wealth had been stored in this palace (and by wealth I mean the whole creation, all that is in plants and trees, and all that has sense, and breath, and life; and—if we are to account materials also as wealth—all that for their beauty are reckoned precious in the eyes of men, as gold and silver, and the substances of your jewels which men delight in—having concealed, I say, abundance of all these also in the bosom of the earth as in a royal treasure-house), he thus manifests man in the world, to be the beholder of some of the wonders therein, and the lord of others; that by his enjoyment he might have knowledge of the Giver, and by the beauty and majesty of the things he saw might trace out that power of the Maker which is beyond speech and language.
For this reason man was brought into the world last after the creation, not being rejected to the last as worthless, but as one whom it behooved to be king over his subjects at his very birth. And as a good host does not bring his guest to his house before the preparation of his feast, but, when he has made all due preparation, and decked with their proper adornments his house, his couches, his table, brings his guest home when things suitable for his refreshment are in readiness,—in the same manner the rich and munificent Entertainer of our nature, when He had decked the habitation with beauties of every kind, and prepared this great and varied banquet, then introduced man, assigning to him as his task not the acquiring of what was not there, but the enjoyment of the things which were there; and for this reason He gives him as foundations the instincts of a twofold organization, blending the Divine with the earthy, that by means of both he may be naturally and properly disposed to each enjoyment, enjoying God by means of his more divine nature, and the good things of earth by the sense that is akin to them.”
God creates by building Himself a “house,” a dwelling place. It is not that He has need of a physical place to live, but this house He builds has a purpose. He builds a wonderful house, full beauty. A place that is comfortable to live and has everything one could want. He builds this house because He is expecting guests. He wants to be a host and serve His guests with everything they need. He builds His house and then builds the ones that will live there with Him. He builds Adam and Eve to be His guests. He tells them to make themselves at home. He tells them that as long as they don’t go against His one rule, they will have the run of the place and can use it however they want. With the exception of one thing, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, nothing is off limits. The Tree is there as a reminder that it is God who ultimately owns it all and He wants to serve them.
This aspect of God has not changed. God still enjoys being a host and serving His guests. As long as we remember that He is still in charge, He gives us free run of His house. He lets us enjoy all of the delightful and beautiful things He has put in His house just for us. He still wants to live in this house together with us, but we have been making a pretty bad mess of the place. So, before that can happen, He is making preparations to fix it again as good as new. We look forward to that time when the place will be perfect again and we will get the chance to live with God here in His house. Until then, we still are able to enjoy the beauty that He has put here, remembering that He has put it here just for us.
Holy Week 2014
As we approach Holy Week, with Good Friday and Easter, and look from there to everything that comes afterward, it is worth remembering that these are not separate and isolated events. All of Christ’s life, including the events of Holy Week, are all part of God’s plan for salvation. In fact, everything from the very beginning has been designed to bring Christ into the world so that we would be saved from our sins. In response to this, St. Augustine has a thought that helps us keep it all in perspective:
“All the events, then, of Christ’s crucifixion, of His burial, of His resurrection the third day, of His ascension into heaven, of His sitting down at the right hand of the Father, were So ordered, that the life which the Christian leads here might be modeled upon them, not merely in a mystical sense, but in reality. For in reference to His crucifixion it is said: “They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts. (Gal. 5:24)” And in reference to His burial: “We are buried with Him by baptism into death. (Rom. 6:4)” In reference to His resurrection: “That, like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:5)” And in reference to His ascension into heaven and sitting down at the right hand of the Father: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. (Col. 3:1-3)”
Each of the events in Christ’s life is not meant just for Him, but for us as well. He brings us along with Him every step of the way. He is crucified in our place so our sins die with Him. He is raised from the dead, blazing the trail for us to follow in eternal life. He ascends into heaven to show that our place is secure in the presence of God. We give thanks that God has given us so many ways to see and experience what He has done for us, not just in Holy Week, but throughout the year and throughout our lives.
Following Christmas, the festival of Epiphany is a smaller, but still significant, event in the life of Christ. Here is part of a sermon by Leo the Great. Leo was a Roman bishop who lived in the 5th Century and was diligent in fighting for a proper understanding of Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
“Taught then, dearly-beloved, by these mysteries of Divine grace, let us with reasonable joy celebrate the day of our first-fruits and the commencement of the nations’ calling: ‘giving thanks to’ the merciful GOD ‘who made us worthy,’ as the Apostle says, ‘to be partakers of the lot of the saints in light: who delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love:’ since as Isaiah prophesied, ‘the people of the nations that sat in darkness, have seen a great light, and they that dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.’ Of whom he also said to the LORD, ‘nations which knew not thee, shall call on thee: and peoples which were ignorant of thee, shall run together unto thee.’ "This day ‘Abraham saw and was glad,’ when he understood that the sons of his faith would be blessed in his seed that is in Christ, and foresaw that by believing he should be the father of all nations, ‘giving glory to GOD and being fully assured that What He had promised, He was able also to perform.’ This day David sang of in the psalms saying: ‘all nations that thou hast made shall come and worship before Thee, O LORD: and they shall glorify Thy name;’ and again: ‘The LORD hath made known His salvation: His righteousness hath He openly showed in the sight of the nations.’ This in good truth we know to have taken place ever since the three wise men aroused in their far-off land were led by a star to recognize and worship the King of heaven and earth, [which to those who gaze aright ceases not daily to appear. And if it could make Christ known when concealed in infancy, how much more able was it to reveal Him when reigning in majesty]. And surely their worship of Him exhorts us to imitation; that, as far as we can, we should serve our gracious GOD who invites us all to Christ. For whosoever lives religiously and chastely in the Church and ‘sets his mind on the things which are above, not on the things that are upon the earth,’ is in some measure like the heavenly light: and whilst he himself keeps the brightness of a holy life, he points out to many the way to the LORD like a star. In which regard, dearly-beloved, ye ought all to help one another in turn, that in the kingdom of GOD, which is reached by right faith and good works, ye may shine as the sons of light: through our LORD Jesus Christ, Who with GOD the Father and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.”
Leo shows that Epiphany is the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham centuries before. God had chosen Israel for special service, but His desire was to be known by all people. Here at Epiphany we see foreigners, with no real connection to Israel, showing up and acknowledging Christ as king. God’s plan is not the salvation of a select few, but the whole world. In Epiphany we see God already at work for our own salvation as Gentiles are brought to faith and the Gospel message is carried to the far corners of the earth. As the star pointed the way to Christ, those who follow Christ have His light shining through them as well. Our words and deeds continue to point the way to Christ and to the salvation He brings.
It is fitting at Advent to look forward to Christmas and meditate on what God is doing there. For this, we look at a little of the writing of Cyril of Jerusalem. St. Cyril wrote extensively on confirmation. He wrote about what he taught and how he taught it. He was the priest at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which is built on what many believe to be the tomb of Christ. The selection for our thoughts today draws from one of his lectures: “Believe then that this Only-begotten Son of God for our sins came down from heaven upon earth, and took upon Him this human nature of like passions with us, and was begotten of the Holy Virgin and of the Holy Ghost, and was made Man, not in seeming and mere show, but in truth; nor yet by passing through the Virgin as through a channel; but was of her made truly flesh, and did truly eat as we do, and truly drink as we do. For if the Incarnation was a phantom, salvation is a phantom also. The Christ was of two natures, Man in what was seen, but God in what was not seen; as Man truly eating like us, for He had the like feeling of the flesh with us; but as God feeding the five thousand from five loaves; as Man truly dying, but as God raising him that had been dead four days; truly sleeping in the ship as Man, and walking upon the waters as God.”
Much of the mystery and wonder of Christmas comes when we consider that the God who created all things and fills all things chose to confine Himself to a body and subject Himself to the toil and hardship that afflicts us in this broken world. He was not a ghost who just looked like a person, nor was He just play acting and pretending to suffer as we do. It is because Christ took on our human flesh that our human flesh is redeemed. Because of our brokenness and sin, we could not exist in His pure and holy presence. Instead, Christ comes to us in a human body so that He can redeem us and so that God can dwell with His people again.
Thoughts on Baptism, September 2013
Since we are talking about the many benefits of Baptism in our worship service, it is appropriate to offer further thoughts about Baptism. We are probably all at least a little familiar with some of the things Martin Luther talks about in the Small Catechism about Baptism. However, in his Large Catechism, Luther goes into greater depth and shares many important ideas about why Baptism is such a wondrous gift of God.
“In Baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life. He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.
“In short, the blessings of Baptism are so boundless that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether they could all be true.
“Suppose there were a physician who had such skill that people would not die, or even though they died would afterward live forever. Just think how the world would snow and rain money upon him! Because of the pressing crowd of rich men no one else could get near him. Now, here in Baptism there is brought free to every man’s door just such a priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men.
“To appreciate and use Baptism aright, we must draw strength and comfort from it when our sins or conscience oppress us, and we must retort, ‘But I am baptized! And if I am baptized, I have the promise that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’
“This is the reason why these two things are done in Baptism: the body has water poured over it, though it cannot receive anything but the water, and meanwhile the Word is spoken so that the soul may grasp it.
“Since the water and the Word together constitute one Baptism, body and soul shall be saved and live forever: the soul through the Word in which it believes, the body because it is united with the soul and apprehends Baptism in the only way it can. No greater jewel, therefore, can adorn our body and soul than Baptism, for through it we obtain perfect holiness and salvation, which no other kind of life and no work on earth can acquire.”
Here, Luther is summing up some of the points he made earlier in his discussion of Baptism. The magnitude of what Baptism does for us is beyond our comprehension. Even the few weeks spent on Baptism in our sermon series still leaves out several major themes the Bible uses in connection with Baptism. Through faith, we receive all of the promises God makes to us in Baptism. He grants us an eternal life that can never be taken away. No thief can steal it and no decay can corrupt it. That eternal life is joined to us at the moment of Baptism. That means, when death approaches for us, there will be no need to wonder what will happen to us when we die. There will be no need to worry or to doubt. Baptism is there to give us the confidence that we have truly heard and received God’s promise of salvation. That alone is enough to cause us to marvel at what an impact that has on our lives and yet, as we've been hearing in worship, that is only one of many things Baptism does for us.
Summer Thoughts on Creation, July 2013
During the summer months, where the sun is shining and God’s creation is thriving, it seems a good time to talk a bit about what God made. Here is another passage from Augustine. The early church fathers were not always in complete agreement. Augustine finds that he needs to chastise a fellow theologian by the name of Origen for allowing the philosophy of the day to affect his understanding of creation. The philosophers said that the material world was inherently evil and that our souls are the only part of us that truly matters. Thus, our goal is to escape the physical world and be free of our bodies. Augustine looks at Scripture and finds quite the opposite message:
“But it is much more surprising that some even of those who, with ourselves, believe that there is one only source of all things, and that no nature which is not divine can exist unless originated by that Creator, have yet refused to accept with a good and simple faith this so good and simple a reason of the world’s creation, that a good God made it good; and that the things created, being different from God, were inferior to Him, and yet were good, being created by none other than He. But they say that souls, though not, indeed, parts of God, but created by Him, sinned by abandoning God; that, in proportion to their various sins, they merited different degrees of debasement from heaven to earth, and diverse bodies as prison-houses; and that this is the world, and this the cause of its creation, not the production of good things, but the restraining of evil. Origen is justly blamed for holding this opinion. For in the books which he entitles ‘Of Origins,’ this is his sentiment, this is his utterance. And I cannot sufficiently express my astonishment, that a man so erudite and well versed in ecclesiastical literature, should not have observed, in the first place, how opposed this is to the meaning of this authoritative Scripture, which, in recounting all the works of God, regularly adds, ‘And God saw that it was good;’ and, when all were completed, inserts the words, ‘And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.’ Was it not obviously meant to be understood that there was no other cause of the world’s creation than that good creatures should be made by a good God? In this creation, had no one sinned, the world would have been filled and beautified with natures good without exception; and though there is sin, all things are not therefore full of sin, for the great majority of the heavenly inhabitants preserve their nature’s integrity. And the sinful will, though it violated the order of its own nature, did not on that account escape the laws of God, who justly orders all things for good. For as the beauty of a picture is increased by well-managed shadows, so, to the eye that has skill to discern it, the universe is beautified even by sinners, though, considered by themselves, their deformity is a sad blemish.”
Augustine makes clear that the world God made is good. God does not create evil and the world was not evil when God created it. Creation is a gift of God and is there to be cherished, appreciated, and cared for. Though sinful people will not be able to care for and appreciate God’s creation to the extent they should, nonetheless the work they do in caring for what God has made is not in vain. Even the meager efforts of sinful people are important and work to bring out the beauty and joy in what God has made. All of creation looks forward to the restoration Christ will bring when He returns and all of creation will sing His praises alongside the church on that day.
There are many people in the early church who have contributed to our understanding of God and who have shared their faith with us. There are also those who have lived more recently, yet have still had a profound impact on the Christian faith. One of the most well-known theologians of modern times is a man who has had no formal theological training at all; the man known as C. S. Lewis. Of the many books C. S. Lewis has written, “Mere Christianity” is one of the most important. It is partly a discourse on theology and partly autobiographical. It is important because it documents how this extremely intelligent and gifted man, who taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, came to be a Christian. He shares how God tore down his intellectual arguments and brought him face to face with the truth that there is a God out there who loves him very much.
For Trinity Sunday, I offer this selection from his book, which shares a realization he made regarding who Christ is:
“Then comes a real shock. Among these Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God. He claims to forgive sins. He says He has always existed. He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time. Now let us get this clear. Among Pantheists [those who believe in many gods], like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it. But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God. God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world, who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else. And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips.
One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to. I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins. Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic. We can all understand how a man forgives offences against himself. You tread on my toes and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you. But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money? Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct. Yet this is what Jesus did. He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured. He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned, the person chiefly offended in all offences. This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin. In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.
Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit. Still less do unprejudiced readers. Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Like the Jews in the Gospel lesson for this Trinity Sunday, you can try and call Christ a demon or a crazy person, but you cannot change what He has said. Christ makes clear how He wants us to see Him. He makes clear who He truly is. If you listen to His words, you are left with the inescapable conclusion that He is claiming to be God. The world today would love nothing more than to take just bits and pieces of Christ’s words and build their picture of Him from that. But His words are all there for everyone to read. After hearing what He has to say your choice is simple: either you trust that what He says is true and that He is the God who loves you, or you reject Him and walk away. There is no middle ground. There is no compromise. Either Jesus is God, or He is a liar.
The selection for Pentecost comes from an early church father named Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory is one of the most well-known combatants against heresies in the early church and is also known for his thoughts on how the Holy Spirit works, which have shaped how the church even today thinks about the Holy Spirit. This selection is part of his speech on the day of Pentecost:
“This Spirit shares with the Son in working both the Creation and the Resurrection, as you may be shown by this Scripture; By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the power of them by the breath of His Mouth; and this, The Spirit of God that made me, and the Breath of the Almighty that teaches me and again, Thou shalt send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created, and Thou shalt renew the face of the earth. And He is the Author of spiritual regeneration. Here is your proof:—None can see or enter into the Kingdom, except he be born again of the Spirit, and be cleansed from the first birth, which is a mystery of the night, by a remoulding of the day and of the Light, by which every one singly is created anew. This Spirit, for He is most wise and most loving, if He takes possession of a shepherd makes him a Psalmist, subduing evil spirits by his song, and proclaims him King; if he possess a goatherd and scraper of sycamore fruit, He makes him a Prophet. Call to mind David and Amos. If He possess a goodly youth, He makes him a Judge of Elders, even beyond his years, as Daniel testifies, who conquered the lions in their den. If He takes possession of Fishermen, He makes them catch the whole world in the nets of Christ, taking them up in the meshes of the Word. Look at Peter and Andrew and the Sons of Thunder, thundering the things of the Spirit. If of Publicans, He makes gain of them for discipleship, and makes them merchants of souls; witness Matthew, yesterday a Publican, today an Evangelist. If of zealous persecutors, He changes the current of their zeal, and makes them Pauls instead of Sauls, and as full of piety as He found them of wickedness. And He is the Spirit of Meekness, and yet is provoked by those who sin. Let us therefore make proof of Him as gentle, not as wrathful, by confessing His Dignity; and let us not desire to see Him implacably wrathful. He too it is who has made me today a bold herald to you;—if without rest to myself, God be thanked; but if with risk, thanks to Him nevertheless; in the one case, that He may spare those that hate us; in the other, that He may consecrate us, in receiving this reward of our preaching of the Gospel, to be made perfect by blood.”
Gregory here shares with us the power of God in the life of the Christian. When the Holy Spirit enters into the life of a new believer, the change is not subtle or hidden. Even though their role in life may not change, they are still husbands, mothers, students, workers, and so forth, everything about their life is still changed. Now, instead of going about all of these roles seeking their own glory or fame, they do these things for the glory of God. Their attitude toward the world and toward the men and women around them changes. They are given the ability to testify to the grace and love of God through their lives, and that testimony has a profound effect on the people around them. Though Christ is focus of our attention most of the time, for it is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross that makes our salvation possible, it is the Holy Spirit that enables sinful people to actually become Christian, to be conformed to the life of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit that transforms a sinner into a saint.
Easter 2013 In keeping with the theme for this Lenten season of the days of Holy Week, the next selection for our meditation comes from Alexander Schmemann. Schmemann was an Eastern Orthodox priest and theologian who passed away in the 1980's. Though he talks about theological ideas in a little different way than what we are used to, much of what he says feels right at home in a Lutheran setting. Expanding upon the sermon theme for this Easter, he writes,
"From the beginning Christians had their own day, and it is in its peculiar nature that we find the key to the Christian experience of time. To recover it, however, we must go beyond...[the institution of] Sunday as the compulsory, weekly day of rest, [which] made it the Christian substitute for the Jewish Sabbath. After that the unique and paradoxical significance of the Lord's Day was little by little forgotten. And yet its significance came precisely from its relation to the Sabbath, that is, to the whole biblical understanding of time. In the Jewish religious experience, Sabbath, the seventh day, has a tremendous importance: it is the participation by man in, and his affirmation of, the goodness of God's creation. ... The seventh day is thus the joyful acceptance of the world created by God as good. The rest prescribed on that day ... is the active participation in the 'Sabbath delight,' in the sacredness and fullness of divine peace as the fruit of all work, as the crowning of all time.
Yet this 'good' world, which the Jew blesses on the seventh day, is at the same time the world of sin and revolt against God, and its time is the time of man's exile and alienation from God. And, therefore, the seventh day points beyond itself towards the new Lord's Day-the day of salvation and redemption, of God's triumph over His enemies.
Christ arose on the first day after Sabbath. The life that shone forth from the grave was beyond the inescapable limitations of 'seven,' of time that leads to death. It was truly the eighth and the first day and it became the day of the Church."
Schmemann writes a great deal on the Christian experience of time. As Christians, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We confess it in the creed, as Scripture declares it will happen. We are looking to the future for these things, but the reality is that this resurrection has already taken place for one person: Jesus Christ. Christ has already brought this resurrection and eternal life into the world on Easter morning and, as St. Paul tells us, each of us is now bound to Christ's life through our baptism.
God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh. Shortly thereafter, the world was corrupted by sin and death. Ecclesiastes tells us there is nothing new under the sun, and that's true. Every day is marked by the sin and death that pervade the world made by the seven days of creation. It's true right up until God does something truly new. He creates something that is forever beyond sin and death: a new day, a new creation. Easter morning, and every Sunday afterwards now represent what Christ did on this eighth day of the week; the first day of the new creation. This is why Christians do not celebrate the Sabbath and God's rest on the seventh day, but instead celebrate the eighth day, as Christ begins the new creation He will someday bring to us all.
As we begin Lent, a message of repentance is appropriate for our mediation:
"O great is Thy patience, Lord, full of compassion and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy, and true; who makest Thy sun to rise upon the good and the evil, and who sendest rain upon the just and the unjust; who willest not the death of the sinner, so much as that he return and live; who reproving in parts, dost give place to repentance, that wickedness having been abandoned, they may believe on Thee, O Lord; who by Thy patience dost lead to repentance, although many according to the hardness of their heart and their impenitent heart treasure up for themselves wrath against the day of wrath and of the revelation of Thy righteous judgment, who wilt render to every man according to his works; who in the day when a man shall have turned from his iniquity to Thy mercy and truth, wilt forget all his iniquities: stand before us, grant unto us that through our ministry, by which Thou hast been pleased to refute this execrable and too horrible error, as many have already been liberated, many also may be liberated, and whether through the sacra-ment of Thy holy baptism, or through the sacrifice of a broken spirit and a contrite and humbled heart, in the sorrow of repentance, they may deserve to receive the remission of their sins and blasphemies, by which through ignorance they have offended Thee. For nothing is of any avail, save Thy surpassing mercy and power, and the truth of Thy baptism, and the keys of the kingdom of heaven in Thy holy Church; so that we must not despair of men as long as by Thy patience they live on this earth, who even knowing how great an evil it is to think or to say such things about Thee, are detained in that malign profession on account of the use or the attainment of temporal or earthly convenience, if rebuked by Thy reproaches they in any way flee to Thy ineffable goodness, and prefer to all the enticements of the carnal life, the heavenly and eternal life."
This prayer comes to us from St. Augustine. Augustine had a rather eventful life. He lived back in the 4th century, and though his mother was a devout Christian, he never really took hold of the faith. As he grew up he fell in with a heretical sect called the Manichaeans and was an avid proponent of their beliefs for some time. However, his mother never gave up on him and she prayed for him constantly. Over time, the Holy Spirit broke through his unbelief and brought him to faith in Christ. Augustine then become a mighty theologian for the church.
This prayer by Augustine is a reflection on his time with the Manichaeans. Augustine acknowledges his own sinfulness and the grace of God that brought him to faith. He sees the need to humble himself and come before God in repen-tance to receive forgiveness for all of his many sins. However, Augustine has not forgotten where he came from. As a Manichaean, Augustine was a condemned sinner, destined for hell. Now through repentance and grace, he is destined for eternal life and salvation. All of his former friends and colleagues among the Manichaeans are still condemned and outside of the faith. Augustine prays that, just as God has brought him to repentance, He would do the same for all of those who still do not believe, all those who still need to hear the good news of Christ.
Augustine's message tells us two things that are very important. First, the humble awareness of our need for repen-tance can never be forgotten. We were and still are sinners and continually need to come before God and acknowledge our failure, so that He can restore us through His grace. In addition to that, we must also remember that we cannot forget where we came from. There are many people in our lives who have not heard the good news of Christ and do not yet believe in Him. We must continue to pray to God and speak to them in the hopes that one day the Spirit will break through their walls of unbelief and bring them to faith. These unbelievers are daily reminders of who we used to be. This reminder should drive us to compassion and demonstrations through word and action of how much God loves them and what He has done for us.
During the seasons of Advent and Christmas we reflect how Jesus, who is God, also came to be a man and live on earth among us. The early church theologians had a very hard time with this. Why would something spiritual want to tie itself to a body? Why would God want to take on frail, human flesh? Many of the theological wars fought inside the early church were because people tried to find rational explanations to these questions. These questions often came about because of the worldview that people had, which was highly influenced by Greek philosophy. Though Greek philosophy doesn’t affect our society in quite the same way today, there are many who still struggle with this question. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, believe what is essentially a heresy from the early church: that Christ was never truly God at all, but just man.
A man by the name of Martin Chemnitz, who was Luther’s protégé and was instrumental in codifying the Lutheran Confessional document known as the Formula of Concord, wrote a book called “The Two Natures in Christ,” that sets down in explicit detail all of the nuances of Christ’s divinity and humanity. He draws passages of Scripture together with the writings of the early church fathers who were involved with the debate to show how Christ’s divinity and humanity can coexist in the same body, and just how important it is that they do. He writes:
“…It is certain that the Son of God assumed a human nature chiefly for two reasons: (1) that He might redeem and free it from the wrath of God, from condemnation, and from eternal death; and (2) that, corrupted and depraved by sin as it is, He might refashion and restore it first in Himself, and that then from Himself as the Head there might come to us who are His members cleansing, sanctification, and renewal. … However, not just a part of our nature but our entire nature is infected and vitiated by sin. Nor did He undertake to save only a part but all of it in its entirety. Therefore He assumed a complete and entire human nature, that is, both body and soul. … The depravity of sin, however, does not cling only to the substance of the body and soul, but is also in the very appetites, drives, faculties, and activities. Therefore the Son of God took on our entire human nature with all the conditions or properties which are proper to and characteristic of our nature, in order that we might have a sure pledge of the restoration of our entire corrupt nature, whose cure He as our physician undertook, having given definite proof, when He in Himself as the Head first reformed and, as it were, refashioned it in its entirety. Moreover, the statement of Nazianzus is most significant, a statement which all antiquity accepted, namely, that that part of human nature ‘which was not assumed by Christ was not healed.’ Augustine says: ‘Since this assumption took place for our salvation, we must beware lest one believes that some part of us was not assumed, and this part also is not saved.’ From this it is clear what Satan seeks by this twisting of ideas. Such warnings are useful so that when the pious have been admonished they may ever more seriously abhor ravings of this kind and confirm and fortify their minds more diligently by firm and clear testimonies of Scripture.”
Chemnitz is making clear that Christ did not just become partly human, but completely human. Sin taints every part of a person, both body and soul. In order to make a person completely clean again, it was necessary for Christ to take every sinful thing in a person, both body and soul, and nail it to the Cross. In that death, the sin of the entire human being is destroyed. That also means that when Christ rises from the dead, the entire human being came back to life purged from sin. The entire human being is perfected in the Christ’s resurrection and so our entire, perfected being will rise from the dead when Christ returns. We see in Christ’s ministry how all of the unclean, sinful, and dead things that Christ comes in contact with are made clean, pure, and alive. This is why it was necessary for Christ to be a complete human being, because if Christ did not take on some part of us, that part would never be saved. So, we look forward to Christmas; the day when Christ becomes man in order to save us from sin in both body and soul.
Reformation Day 2012
In celebration of Reformation Day I am starting a new series called, “The Faith of Our Fathers.” The faith that we hold has been handed down to us first by the Apostles, and then through the ages of the church. Throughout this time, there have been many godly men who, either through quiet mediation on God’s Word, through heated debates with heretics, or through wrestling with God in the midst of turmoil, have gained a greater knowledge of God and a clearer understanding of Scripture. These men have shed light on many aspects of the faith. Much of what we know about God and His workings in the world through Christ were not as clear as they are today. We readily accept some things, such as that Christ is both true God and true man, only because of the hard-fought battles waged by the Spirit through these notable theologians and churchmen of the past. If we allow them to speak to us, we can find Scripture revealed to us from new perspectives; revealed to us through the eyes of our fathers in the faith, who have given their lives to the service of God’s Word.
Since we are celebrating the Reformation, it is only appropriate that we begin with a reading from Martin Luther on righteousness, taken from Luther’s Works, vol. 31:
“There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds.
The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which he justifies through faith, as it is written in I Cor. 1[:30]: ‘Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.’ In John 11[:25–26], Christ himself states: ‘I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me … shall never die.’ Later he adds in John 14[:6], ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.’ This righteousness, then, is given to men in baptism and whenever they are truly repentant. Therefore a man can with confidence boast in Christ and say: ‘Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying, mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, and died as he did.’ Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride’s and she all that is his—for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh [Gen. 2:24]—so Christ and the church are one spirit [Eph. 5:29–32]. Thus the blessed God and Father of mercies has, according to Peter, granted to us very great and precious gifts in Christ [II Pet. 1:4]. Paul writes in II Cor. 1[:3]: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.’
This inexpressible grace and blessing was long ago promised to Abraham in Gen. 12[:3]: ‘And in thy seed (that is, in Christ) shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.’ Isaiah 9[:6] says: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.’ ‘To us,’ it says, because he is entirely ours with all his benefits if we believe in him, as we read in Rom. 8[:32]: ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?’ Therefore everything which Christ has is ours, graciously bestowed on us unworthy men out of God’s sheer mercy, although we have rather deserved wrath and condemnation, and hell also. Even Christ himself, therefore, who says he came to do the most sacred will of his Father [John 6:38], became obedient to him; and whatever he did, he did it for us and desired it to be ours, saying, ‘I am among you as one who serves’ [Luke 22:27]. He also states, ‘This is my body, which is given for you’ [Luke 22:19]. Isaiah 43[:24] says, ‘You have burdened me with your sins, you have wearied me with your iniquities.’
Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours. Therefore the Apostle calls it ‘the righteousness of God’ in Rom. 1[:17]: For in the gospel ‘the righteousness of God is revealed …; as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by his faith.’’ Finally, in the same epistle, chapter 3[:28], such a faith is called ‘the righteousness of God’: ‘We hold that a man is justified by faith.’ This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he. It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him. This righteousness is primary; it is the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness. For this is the righteousness given in place of the original righteousness lost in Adam. It accomplishes the same as that original righteousness would have accomplished; rather, it accomplishes more.
It is in this sense that we are to understand the prayer in Psalm 30 [Ps. 31:1]: ‘In thee, O Lord, do I seek refuge; let me never be put to shame; in thy righteousness deliver me’ It does not say ‘in my’ but ‘in thy righteousness,’ that is, in the righteousness of Christ my God which becomes ours through faith and by the grace and mercy of God. In many passages of the Psalter, faith is called ‘the work of the Lord,’ ‘confession,’ 'power of God,’ ‘mercy,’ ‘truth,’ ‘righteousness.’ All these are names for faith in Christ, rather, for the righteousness which is in Christ. The Apostle therefore dares to say in Gal. 2[:20], ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ He further states in Eph. 3 [14–17]: ‘I bow my knees before the Father … that … he may grant … that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.’
Therefore this alien righteousness, instilled in us without our works by grace alone—while the Father, to be sure, inwardly draws us to Christ—is set opposite original sin, likewise alien, which we acquire without our works by birth alone. Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow. For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.
The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it, but because we work with that first and alien righteousness. This is that manner of life spent profitably in good works, in the first place, in slaying the flesh and crucifying the desires with respect to the self, of which we read in Gal. 5[:24]: ‘And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.’ In the second place, this righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, and in the third place, in meekness and fear toward God. The Apostle is full of references to these, as is all the rest of Scripture. He briefly summarizes everything, however, in Titus 2[:12]: ‘In this world let us live soberly (pertaining to crucifying one’s own flesh), justly (referring to one’s neighbor), and devoutly (relating to God).’
This righteousness is the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence, for we read in Gal. 5[:22]: ‘But the fruit of the spirit [i.e., of a spiritual man, whose very existence depends on faith in Christ] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.’ For because the works mentioned are works of men, it is obvious that in this passage a spiritual man is called ‘spirit.’ In John 8[:6] we read: ‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.’ This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin. Therefore it hates itself and loves its neighbor; it does not seek its own good, but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists. For in that it hates itself and does not seek its own, it crucifies the flesh. Because it seeks the good of another, it works love. Thus in each sphere it does God’s will, living soberly with self, justly with neighbor, devoutly toward God.”
In this somewhat lengthy passage from Luther is his famous discussion on what he calls “two kinds of righteousness.” What he calls “alien righteousness” is the righteousness that comes from the outside. It is not a normal part of who we are and so it must be given to us if we are to have it. Because it comes from outside us, it is not something that we can earn or in any way achieve. It is God’s own righteousness and He alone can grant it. The righteousness that comes from God is the only thing that allows us to stand in God’s presence. It is the only thing that makes us worthy to be seen by Him and not fall under His judgment. It is the only thing that saves us. This is what we receive through faith in Christ, through His Word, and through the sacraments. This is what makes us Christians and grants us eternal life.
The second kind of righteousness, the righteousness that is “proper” to us or within our power, is righteousness built through our life in service to God. Because we are Christians, we do the work that is proper for us. We worship God and we serve our neighbor. We care for those in need and we live a life that reflects what God has given to us. This righteous work that we do does not save us. However, it is necessary work that is done to bring the gifts and the grace of God to those who need them.
It is important to see the distinction between the two kinds of righteousness and to know what their purpose is. That righteousness comes through faith alone in Christ is Luther’s greatest contribution to the church and is ultimately what divided him from the Catholic Church. This is the faith that he hands down to us and the faith that we profess today.