God’s law condemns—but his good news promises forgiveness and joy!

I feel the most vital and necessary teaching we Confessional Lutherans are “still standing” by is the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. Before I became Lutheran, I attended and was involved in many Christian churches that were good at preaching the ways I didn’t fulfill God’s word but never clearly preached that Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s law so I didn’t have to do anything else to be saved. Their teachings mixed the law and gospel by conveying if I just did my part, God would do his and my life would be prosperous, fulfilling, and happy. I did believe Jesus died to save me, yet the sermons that promised an “easy yoke” and an enjoyable, “Spirit-filled life” left me insecure, burdened, unhappy, and unsatisfied. I wanted to do good, but I couldn’t do enough to prove to God how thankful I was. I could not understand others saying that reading the Bible made them “feel better” or “comforted.” I kept trying the next book, experience, or deed, but got bitter results: being ashamed of my life, feeling both sad and inadequate by my “good” actions.

At the end of my rope, I read Lutheran articles that clearly separated the law from the gospel. In those articles, salvation was sure, based on Jesus’ works, not man’s. I finally understood the comfort Scripture offered! Now, my trust in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is where my treasure lies, my satisfaction will never disappoint, and my heart finds contentment. I confess with Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Romans 1:16-17).

This post by Evelyn Bickel commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (31 October 2017).

500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation! It began on October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther started calling the church to return to these teachings of the Scriptures:

More information:

Celebrating in Ottawa at 3:30 pm on Sunday, November 5:

Keep all the commandments to enter life

As I opened my New Testament, I expected to read a passage and then return to life as usual. Instead I found this:
Once a man came to Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what good thing must I do to receive eternal life?” “Why do you ask me concerning what is good?” answered Jesus. “There is only One who is good. Keep the commandments if you want to enter life.” “What commandments?” he asked. Jesus answered, “Do not commit murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not accuse anyone falsely; respect your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “I have obeyed all these commandments,” the young man replied.
Matthew 19:16-20a, Good News Translation
But I obviously had not obeyed all those commandments! Condemned by Jesus, I fell to my knees, begging to be allowed somehow to enter eternal life as a slave.
Years later I learned that because “the only One who is good” was sentenced to death for my crime, I not only received eternal life but received it as God’s forgiven child. Grace alone.
I did not receive it by doing a good thing but simply by believing that good news. Faith alone.
No church council or Pope could take the joy of this full pardon from me, for I had not learned it from mortals but from the very words of God. Scripture alone.
Just as I am, thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
This post by David Bickel commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (31 October 2017).

What is the difference between popular evangelicalism and confessional Lutheranism?

Christians of Reformed heritage, including Arminians as well as Calvinists, obviously differ from Lutherans on sacramentology. More foundationally, to the extent that they maintain their distinctive teachings, they disagree on exactly what gospel (good news) the apostles proclaimed:

absolve

More: The chief difference between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology

Faith is clear, not defined in terms of good works

Many evangelical Christians tend to think they disagree with each other only on what they consider minor issues such as whether to baptize infants and whether the gift of tongues is for today, but that they agree on how the forgiveness of sins is received: by grace, through faith alone. This illusion is dispelled upon the realization that different evangelical churches mean very different things by the word faith. Here are some of the most common examples:

  • Faith really means deciding to accept Jesus as Savior by sincerely saying a sinner’s prayer.
  • Faith really means making the decision to accept Jesus not only as Savior, but also as Lord.
  • Faith really is not just belief in God’s promise that his Son died for our sins and rose from the dead, but includes a benevolent love for God, a pious hatred of sin, covenant faithfulness, an obedient heart, or some other commendable quality.

With all the differences of opinion, can anyone know with certainty what faith means? Does it matter?

More: Does faith really mean faith, or did James redefine it?

Justification by faith alone as the hallmark of Lutheranism

Ongoing controversy between even some of the most conservative followers of John Calvin surrounding what has become known as “the new perspective on Paul” dispels the illusion that professing evangelicals, though disagreeing on minor points of doctrine, at least agree on justification by faith alone. Among the more influential denominations involved, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church recently commended for study a report that explains many of the points of contention, some concerning seemingly harmless definitions of terms. Noting that words in the phrase “justification by faith alone” mean different things to different people, the report criticizes what it calls “the Federal Vision” for redefining faith to include faithfulness, obedience, or other good works. On the other hand, the same document condemns baptismal regeneration as contrary to the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith. That regeneration by baptism as God’s visible word as well as by his spoken word was integral to Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith suggests that those who formulated the confession’s underlying system of doctrine may have, ironically, redefined justification by faith centuries before the Federal Vision.

More: Calvinistic modification of justification by faith alone: Does God save all who believe the good news of Christ crucified?

Christ’s spoken and visible words give life

In 1531, the first Protestants clarified some fundamental similarities between the preached word of God and the sacraments, the rites instituted by Christ:

Through the Word and the rite God simultaneously moves the heart to believe and take hold of faith, as Paul says (Rom. 10:17), “Faith comes from what is heard.” As the Word enters through the ears to strike the heart, so the rite itself enters through the eyes to move the heart. The Word and the rite have the same effect, as Augustine said so well when he called the sacrament “the visible Word,” for the rite is received by the eyes and is a sort of picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word. Therefore both have the same effect. (Tappert, 2000a)

The Lord’s Supper was called the visible word, used in contrast to audible word by Augustine in an age of general illiteracy, when words were only written to be read out loud. However, in today’s culture of silent reading, visible word may convey no more than written word, whereas the concept of nonverbal communication, conveying thought by means other than words heard or read, is quite familiar.

More: Ways the Son of Man calls forth life: Seeking the kingdom of God in word and sacrament

Corruption exposed

The privileged few maintain the status quo even at the expense of their integrity, telling the others how they can better themselves. The people long for relief from an administration that levies excessive taxes for wasteful spending programs while enforcing a legal system that favors the wealthy. Many find hope in a man who proclaims freedom through a new regime, a man not afraid to expose the greed and arrogance of the current leaders. He tells them their respectability in the eyes of society is a facade, noting that they take advantage of the most helpless for monetary gain.

But this man does not speak of the highly educated as the only slaves of materialism. Although he does not have his own home, he cryptically warns the hungry that they must stop seeking food as if their life depended on it. He also supports the full payment of taxes to the current government. Equally disappointing, he refuses to resist the authorities he has infuriated, enabling them to arrest him, privately try him, and publicly execute him. So much for the freedom he had promised the oppressed. His closest followers go into hiding, and their most vocal advocate of the poor commits suicide. Continue reading

The words of institution in context and the impossibility of the real presence in the Lord’s supper

If Jesus simply meant the bread was in some sense like his body and the wine like his blood, his words were somewhat less clear than under a more literal reading. However, Jesus often used figurative and even cryptic speech in other contexts. While it is improbable that his words of institution were more cryptic than those instituting the original Passover, it’s not impossible. The alternative, that his human flesh and blood were in, with, and under the bread and wine, is simply impossible, for it violates all our thoughts of what it means to be human. Sherlock Holmes observed, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Eliminating the impossible real presence would then leave us with the improbable truth of symbolism to be deciphered.

After all, Jesus was a Rabbi giving a farewell address to his disciples. So perhaps it would be natural to make the words by which he instituted the supper for remembering him more symbolic, as most sects do. In that case, we would expect him to cryptically institute a new Passover meal before expecting him to promise the impossible, the true presence of his human body and blood with the bread and wine to orally eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. A cryptic memorial meal, while initially improbable, sounds very reasonable, very acceptable, very predictable.

Continue reading