I had written an article about God's love. A reader responded with a letter that disturbed me. She described the type of life that no father would want for his daughter - but a life that has been the lot of some in all ages. The article concerning God's love had led the unfortunate woman to think about her own life. The tone of the letter was one of despair: Life continues as before, I have no strength and at times even no desire to go on. It would be better not to talk about God.
The Bible offers hope even to those who have fallen deeply into sin. In the final analysis in God's sight there are no great sinners or sinners who have fallen only a little. Because of original sin, all have sinned. Everyone needs the entire grace of Christ in order to be saved. God's Son was born a human being from ancestors who were sinful people like the rest of mankind. Rahab, the harlot, was an ancestor of His. So was Solomon, who was born to Uriah's wife as a result of David's adultery. The person who has fallen into gross sins often finds it difficult to believe that God could be merciful to such a great sinner. But the genealogy of Christ shows us what kind of people Christ came to save. Jesus Himself was sinless, but the guilt of our sins was attributed to Him, so that He suffered for us and experienced untold agony under God's wrath. Jesus did this for all people, even for the outcasts of society. Although He Himself was sinless, this did not cause Him to condemn and reject the fallen. He did not approve of sin, but this did not stop Him from loving sinners and forgiving the penitent.
The Bible tells us of many who repented and believed. Rahab, who helped the representatives of God's people, became a heroine of faith. The New Testament presents her as an example of true faith. David confessed his sins and was forgiven. A certain woman with a bad reputation anointed Jesus' feet with costly ointment. Earlier she had sought only the treasures of this world and had been willing to exchange her chastity for them. Now this world had lost its appeal for her. She loved Jesus as one, who had learned to know the love of Jesus with which He first loved us.
Jesus is the same yet today. His wounds tell us that the whole world has been redeemed. Therefore: No more despair, no more impenitance, no more unbelief! Let everyone confess his sins to Him and believe them forgiven in His blood! This is the message of Rahab and other fallen women to those who share their fate today: That they would also share the same salvation in Christ. Their example also shows us that it is possible to break free from a life of sin and to begin a new life with the strength that faith in the forgiveness of sins provides.
The fields of Bethlehem. Christmas Eve. The song of the angels resounding in the heavens. The shepherds hasten to see the Christ Child. They return rejoicing with peace in their hearts. There is also peace under the skies of Israel. But then follows the massacre of Bethlehem's children. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit brings peace of conscience to three thousand people, but they are then confronted by the hatred and persecution of the unbelieving world. The Christmas spirit disappears the day after Christmas, St. Stephen's Day. The stoning of Stephen and the massacre of Bethlehem's innocent children cause us to face the disturbing truth: Outward peace lasts only for a time. The world does not receive the Prince of Peace, but rather wishes to remain God's enemy. For this reason it is also hostile toward those who spread the message of peace.
Saul of Tarsus was full of fury toward the Christians. He watched the stoning of Stephen. Stephen prayed with words of reconciliation on his lips: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" But at that time his prayer had no effect on Saul. He was convinced that he had to keep on fighting against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He felt no pangs of conscience. Having received authority from the high priest, he put many saints into prison. The Romans had given the Jewish high priest and the Sanhedrin extensive authority to ajudicate in the internal affairs of the Jews. Saul had been accepted as a member of the Sanhedrin already when he was very young. "When saints were being put to death", confesses Paul or the former Saul, "I cast my vote against them" (Acts 26:10). But when he said this he was no longer boasting, but was rather confessing his sin. The message of peace had entered Paul's heart. He could no longer persecute God's Church. He now loved the Jesus that he had hated before.
Would that the present day Sauls would become Pauls! Would that God would not hold those who voted for the liberal abortion laws of our time eternally guilty, but would permit them to find Bethlehem's Jesus. The blood of the innocents cries unto heaven, but so too does the blood of Christ. The blood of the innocents cries for vengeance, but Jesus' blood cries for reconciliation, forgiveness and peace. He who rejects Christ, rejects reconciliation and will on the Last Day be judged according to his works. But he who flees to Christ for refuge will be saved. How desparately we need courageous Christians, who like Paul, have the courage to confess their mistakes before God, and men who are ready to follow the example of Paul and Stephen and spread the message of salvation. Dear Lord, do not forsake us because of our sins, but give us courageous confessors of the Truth.
Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father and there He rules also according to His human nature. He now rules together with the Father in equal glory and honor. He is present everywhere. Before He ascended into heaven He promised His disciples: "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world" (Matt. 28:20). Having ascended into heaven, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the world to glorify the work of atonement that He had completed. For this task He also gave us gifts, namely pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:8,11).
As a result of the work of the Holy Spirit Christian congregations were born. They were groups of people who were baptized into Jesus Christ, believed in Him and gathered together to hear the Word of God and to partake of the body and blood of the Lord for the forgiveness of sins. But these groups also needed someone to care for their souls.
The Bible calls those who care for souls by various names: stewards (Luke 12:42, 1 Cor. 4:2, Tit. 1:7), shepherds or pastors, teachers (Eph. 4:11), overseers or bishops (Acts 20:28, Phil. 1:1, 1 Tim. 3:1, Tit. 1:7), elders (Acts 20:17, Tit. 1:5, 1 Pet. 5:1) , servants of the Lord (2 Tim. 2:24), your servants (2 Cor. 4:5), leaders (1 Tess. 5:12, Hebr. 13:17).
They are the gift of Jesus. Their task is to feed the flock and protect it from wolves. They must not, however, rule like lords, but they must follow the example of the Chief Shepherd, Jesus, who sought the lost and was ready to give His life for them. Yet they must not seek to please people, but in everything must be faithful to God and His Word.
The pastor of a congregation must give an account to God as to how he has cared for the souls entrusted to his care. For this reason God exhorts believers: "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17). This type of obedience is possible only when a shepherd is a genuine shepherd and teaches God's Word correctly. For Jesus says: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me." "And a stranger they simply will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of the stranger" (John 10:27,5).
The task of the shepherd is an enormous one: To feed souls with the bread of eternal life and to lead them with the Word of God to eternal bliss.
What do you expect from your pastor?
How do you help him to perform the great task that has been given to him?
It is said that the Church stands or falls with the doctrine of justification. This means that true saving faith cannot be born or sustained apart from the Scriptural Gospel of Christ. The Gospel, you see, is the good news that Christ has atoned for the sins of the whole world and everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness in His name. A person is not saved by his own works. Even those works that a person does as a result of faith are not meritorious. Salvation is solely by grace. And so is it good and comforting.
God's grace can easily fade away from view. It is true that many speak about grace, but they are often only repeating learned phrases without understanding the Biblical meaning of the word. When a troubled soul asks how he can receive forgiveness for his sins, different kinds of works are often prescribed as conditions for attaining forgiveness. But God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). This justification is not a change in a person's basic nature, nor does it mean that a person becomes better or sinless. It means rather that he is pardoned, his sins are forgiven. When Paul explains what it means when "God reckons righteousness apart from works", he quotes Psalm 32: "Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account" (Rom. 4:6,8). In this message a troubled soul finds peace of conscience. .
Once at a meeting a speaker explained why he read the Bible. He mentioned various reasons. Finally he said: "The Bible is powerful; it can change a person's life." But he did not mention the reason why we should read the Bible. He said nothing about the fact that in the Bible we find Christ, who atoned for our sins. When he was silent on this matter and spoke instead about how the Bible changes a person's life, the hearers understood him to mean that grace could be earned by a improving one's life. They were encouraged to seek salvation in their own works. Grace was no longer grace. .
The Bible, to wit, the Gospel, indeed has the power to change a person's life for the better. But a better life is the result of faith. First faith or trust in God's grace must be born; only after that can there be fruits of faith. First we must plant the tree; only then can we expect fruit. .
Our old Adam, however, never becomes better. Our new man created by the Holy Spirit in Baptism through faith is always good. Through the power of the Gospel it is victorious over our old Adam. Our only comfort, however, is that we are saved by grace alone without our works, through faith in Christ, the Crucified. God does not justify us because we have been succesful in our lives. He justifies the ungodly. Let us trust in this grace. .
Every sheep of Christ must make sure that he hears the voice of the Good Shepherd. Jesus leads His sheep to the green pastures of grace and feeds the hungry with the bread of eternal life.
We were talking about God's Commandments in a Boys' Group. I asked: "Who has kept them?" "No one. It's impossible ", the boys answered. They had undoubtedly been taken to task more than once for some of their pranks and misdeeds. They had a clear understanding of the fact that they had not kept the Commandments.
I then asked them: "How then can you get to heaven?" Someone answered: "If we don't do anything wrong anymore." We discussed the matter. We noted that God demands perfect holiness and that we are not able to live like that. And we also noted that even our former sins will keep us from heaven.
Someone else suggested: "When we pray that God will forgive us." This answer was closer to the truth. The boys were aware of the fact that sin must be forgiven. But then I asked them: "Would God forgive us, just like that, when we have offended Him?" We came to the conclusion that God needed a compensation for our sins.
We had come to an impasse: We are sinners and we are not able to atone for our sins. "What will happen to us," I asked, "will we be damned?" Then one of the boys said: "But when this Jesus died..."
In this indeed is the sinner's salvation: that Jesus died for our sins. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their tresspasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19). This is how God manifested His love for us. We were not able to atone for our sins, but God's Son became our Subsitute and died for us. God is therefore already merciful to us because of His Son. We do not have to appease Him with our works or even with our prayers. It is true that we must pray: "Forgive us our tresspasses." But we dare to pray like this because we know that God is merciful to sinners because of what Christ has done. We pray because we already believe.
Those who are not yet sure of their salvation should by all means ponder the suffering of Christ in the light of God's Word. "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed" (Is. 53:5). This is how we become assured of our salvation. Jesus died because of us, we are saved because of Jesus.
During His time on earth Jesus met many different kinds of people and talked with them. He did not have to talk to them very long before it was apparent that in a certain sense there were just two types of people: the righteous and the sinners. He needed not that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man (Johm 2:25).
The righteous thought they could be saved without Jesus and without a change of heart. They were not acceptable to Jesus. These people were not actually righteous. They only thought themselves to be righteous.
Even now Jesus looks into human hearts and sees that many people feel no need for a change of heart. He is sad because of them. Among these self-righteous people there are those who are respectable in the eyes of society and those who are not, those who lead outwardly decent lives and those who do not. They may live in fear and have a troubled conscience, but they are unwilling to admit that they have deserved eternal damnation, or that they need to be converted. To such people Jesus says: "If you were blind, you would have no sin, but now you say, 'We see'; your sin remains" (John 9:41).
Sinners on the other hand were people without hope when they thought of themselves. God's Law had struck their conscience. They were not able to defend themselves before God.
There are people like this also today. They have lived here in this world along side of the self-righteous. Some have been spared from falling into gross outward sins. Others have fallen into the very depths of sin and corruption. But they all differ from the self-righteous in this that they are sorry for their sins and feel the need for repentance. For them the Gospel has become the power of God unto salvation. The message that God has forgiven their sins for the sake of His Son's work of atonement is music to their ears.
Do you feel that you are such a person? Remember: Jesus has come to seek the lost. He has taken your sins as His own and suffered the punishment which you should have suffered. He is your vicarious sufferer. He has atoned for your sins. They have been forgiven in His name. His blood has freely flowed as a payment for them. Courageously grasp hold of this grace. Even though your sins appear as great as can be, remember: Jesus is greater than your sins. He has already conquered them. You receive forgiveness through grace as a free gift of God. Only trust in Jesus Christ and you will be saved.
It is said that to forget is human. But on the other hand, according to scientists the human brain stores everything. A person therefore is actually incapable of forgetting. It is, however, a good thing that we can at least remove unpleasant matters from our minds, even though they may linger somewhere in the subconscience.
The Bible also tells us that God both remembers and forgets. God desires truth in the innermost being (Ps. 51:8). He knows what is in our heart. When we think of this we are disturbed. We cannot endure His probing glance or His judgment. "It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebr. 10:31). We hope that He would forget or that we might hide our deeds from Him. We cannot hide our deeds from the all-knowing God.
But can God forget?
God's omnipotence also includes the ability to forget. God does not forget as we would want Him to forget. He demands that we come into the light so that He can admonish us because of our sins. But when He has called us to give an account and awakened in us a sorrow for sin, He stops admonishing us and reveals His gracious heart to us. He has loved us with an everlasting love in His Son. Jesus has atoned for our sins. The new Covenant has been founded on this promise of God: "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more" (Jer. 31:34).
We may not be able to forget, but God promises not to remember our sins. This is the important thing. If God does not remain angry with us, but removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12), we can rejoice and be at peace. Therefore whoever wants to live in peace, let him firmly grasp hold of Christ's grace.
Not all people, however, accept God's grace. Because of their unbelief God remembers their sins. "They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed, with an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten" (Jer. 20:11). On the Last Day we must give an account of our thoughts, words and deeds. How foolish is he who, here in the time of grace, does not seek refuge in Christ. How wise is he to whom the preaching of the Cross is God's power and wisdom. How sweet it is to be safe in the hand of our heavenly Father.
The Bible is a Christian's most important book. It is God's revelation in which He speaks to us. Through thousands of years the Bible has been an amazing source of strength. It has provided comfort to those with a troubled conscience. It has taught us to place our trust in the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. In our spiritual life we have become accustomed to trusting the Bible and we have never been disappointed. Experience teaches us this - and what is significant - the Bible teaches this about Itself.
The Apostle Peter tells us of the origin of the Bible in these words: "Men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (2 Pet. 1:21). The Bible is the Book of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Its writers did not write their own ideas and conclusions. The Holy Spirit used their personalities in His service in such a way that He gave us His own words through them. Jesus says: "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. God cannot lie (Rom. 3:4). So we too confidentally confess: "We know that God does not lie. I and my neighbor and, in short, all men, may err and deceive, but the Word of God cannot err" (Large Cathecism IV,57). The Bible is God's own word without mistakes and errors. We get the courage to make this confession by believing the Bible's own testimony. Jesus Christ and the Apostles believed the same.
The Bible has always been attacked. The devil wants to make its divinity open to question. "Did God really say?" (Gen. 3:1) is the question he asks. If we doubt the divine authorship of the Bible we have fallen into the devil's snare. If we cling to the Word we are standing on a safe rock. Many theologians have renounced their faith in the inerrancy of the Bible. Many professors are teaching young students to doubt. In this way they are undermining the foundation of Christ's Church.
The Bible has also been defended through the ages. There are large volumes in existence in which the attacks against the Bible are disproved in detail. This is a proper way of defending the Bible and is of benefit. However, we err if we think that all the difficult passages of the Bible must be explained to us before we can believe that the Bible is inerrant. There is a proverb that says: One fool can ask more than a thousand wisemen can answer. In other words by following this method we can never be entirely sure.
The Lutheran Church shows us another method. Believe the Bible's own testimony. Cling to those clear passages of the Bible where the Bible is called God's Word. A particularly clear and firm passage is: "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). These are Christ's own words. If there are some difficult passages which you do not understand, leave the matter to God until you either find an explanation or until you arrive there where there is no longer a problem of understanding. The problem, you see, is not in God's Word or in God, but in our understanding.
When a church and its pastors hold fast to the inerrancy of the Bible and know God's grace in truth, they have obeyed Peter's exhortation: "Whoever speaks, let him speak, as it were, the utterances of God" (1 Pet. 4:11). In such a church a heart burdened by sin finds a refuge in the wounds of Christ. A church like this is not swayed by every wind of doctrine, but rather proclaims the everlasting Gospel. There, souls are nourished. They hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and rejoice as a bride rejoices when she hears of the voice of the bridegroom.
A Christian's freedom is a precious gift that must be carefully guarded. Christ has redeemed us from the slavery of sin. Through grace we have received and still receive forgiveness for our sins for the sake of Christ. Those who believe in Christ are not slaves of sin, but are rather free children of God. Neither are we slaves of men. We have only one Lord in whose name we have been baptized and who has shed His blood for us. Through the power of His Word everything is clean to the cleansed: food, drink, the workweek and Sunday, marriage and celibacy, industry and technology, the automobile and the subway, newspapers and television, etc. "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude, for it is sanctified by means of the Word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4:4,5).
True freedom does not sanction abuse, the breaking of God's Commandments, or the promotion of evil. True freedom means love and responsibility. The ability to discern what is right and wrong forms the needed basis for the Christian way of life, but in addition to this we must also know how to use our freedom.
An example: A Christian may with a good conscience own a television set and watch television programs. He of course selects the programs he watches, avoiding that which is not compatible with faith. A Christian, however, cannot always isolate himself from evil. He confronts the unbelieving world in his place of employment, on the streets and also on television. It is important that he knows how to relate to it. Sometimes it may be advisable to watch some inferior program in order to become acquainted with the subject matter so that he will be able to help his fellowmen understand it in the proper way. Such viewing is not sinful.
If a person continually subjects himself to sinful irritants, such behavior indicates that he has not learned the art of Christian living, even though he believes that he is able to separate the good from the bad. Such a person will continually be defending himself, whereas he should be attacking evil with all that is good and right. In other words God's Commandments are not only prohibitions. He who refrains from evil does not yet keep the Commandments, but remains dull and inactive in his relationship to his fellowmen. The Commandments have a positive content: love and purity. Our thoughts should constantly be centered on this content and we should constantly practice it. When using Christian freedom in such a way that this is not prohibited, we are using it properly.
The art of Christian living also includes the proper use of time and energy. Nothing that in itself is not wrong, must take up so much of our time and energy that we are not able to use God's Word and participate in the worship services and activities of the congregation. It is also wrong for parents to leave their children at home to shift for themselves and possibly go hungry, while they themselves go to church. In the life that God has intended for us there is an order of precedence for matters, but at the same time a proper balance must be maintained.
No sane person wants war. Experienced people know that even a tenuous reconciliation is better than an outright quarrel. The leaders of nations, who are aware of their responsibility, work for peace and they have the support of the majority of their people. We value peace and peacemakers.
The Bible also highly regards temporal peace. It urges that "entreaties and prayers... be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, in order that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity" (1 Tim. 2:1,2).
The Bible also speaks of spiritual peace. God sent His Son into the world to attain this peace. Because man trangressed against God's will he brought down God's wrath upon himself. As a result of the fall into sin natural man does not love God, but rather hates Him. God manifested His love for us by reconciling us to Himself instead of treating us as we deserved to be treated. "God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:19). "While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son" (Rom. 5:10). "He Himself is our peace" (Eph. 2:14). "And He came and preached peace to you" (Eph. 2:17).
Christ has brought about an eternal reconciliation between God and man by paying our debt of sin to God. This is pure love, unadulterated grace and mercy. The Gospel now proclaims this peace to us. Our conscience which feels the pressure of God's anger is freed from its terror. Our sins are pronounced forgiven through the atoning blood of Christ. He is worthy of His name, the Prince of Peace (Is. 9:5).
Christ brings to our hearts a peace that is beyond our understanding, a peace which we cannot adequately describe. Because sin retains a hold on us as long as we live, a constant struggle is going on within us, even though we possess God's peace. Our sins threaten to hide God's love from us and to cause us to forget God's peace treaty. For this reason we must not base our peace on our emotions but rather on the Word of the Gospel, which is God's assurance of peace to us. To this we must cling, and cling most firmly!
Christ's Kingdom is a kingdom of peace. The angels proclaimed this peace already when Christ was born. We possess this peace by faith. It is spread abroad by those who proclaim the Gospel. They are spiritual peacemakers. When we are personally reconciled to God, we want to live in peace with our fellowmen, to forgive them, to cover their faults - in other words to love them.
Are you reconciled to God?