Be Clear About the Gospel
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to
you in the name of God the Father , Son (X)
and Holy Spirit. Amen.
God cares how we talk about him and the salvation he
brings. So we are not free to carry on however we wish in
these matters. Instead we’re given rules, not only about
what we are to say, but also on how we are to say it.
Words of Love
The best know Scriptural injunction on this matter is in Ephesians 4:15 where we’re told to speak the truth “in love.” We’re not supposed to browbeat people. We’re not to ridicule them. We’re not to hurt their feelings. Instead, we’re to tell the truth in a loving way. We’re to be “kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,” as God in Christ forgave us (Ephesians 4:32).
important because the “tongue is an unrighteous world among
our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire a cycle
of nature, and set on fire by hell,…. a restless evil, full
of deadly poison” (James 3:6, 8). So we must be careful
about what we say and how we say it. For “rash words are
like sword thrusts” (Proverbs 12:18). No wonder then that
“a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of
silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
But there’s also another rule – equally important – but not as well known. And that rule says that we must be straightforward [orqo-podousin] about the Gospel (Galatians 2:14). So in addition to be loving, we are to be clear. Now that Greek word for straightforward talk begins with the particle, orqo, which also is at the beginning of orthodontics, orthopedics and orthodoxy. In each case it denotes setting things straight – teeth, bones and teaching.
And so we’re to do the same. In Galatians 2
Against this mixed message,
So in this classic confrontation between
wonderful guide in this struggle is Martin Luther, our “most
eminent teacher” [The
Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1580, 1959) p. 576]. In
his classic 300 page treatise, The
Bondage of the Will (1525), he lays out three directions
on how to be straightforward. The first one regards
assertions. On this he writes that if we drop them from Christianity, we
also “take away Christianity” (Luther’s
Works 33:21). So we see that assertions are very important
in maintaining the Christian message.
that message stakes out claims. Not everything goes. Therefore
assertions must be made. Cut-offs have a place. Answers have
been given. So this means that the divine revelation in the
Holy Scriptures is our “only true norm according to which
all teachers and teachings are to be judged” (BC,
in our wayward time, assertions of any kind are suspect. And
so even the church thinks it must drop them all. Rather than
assertions, what we need, so we’re told, are metaphors
offered up in an imaginative field for our individual
spiritual journeys. No delimitations here – just the opening
up of ever wider horizons of meaning and visions. So we must
“leave everything… open-ended,” foreswearing the
temptation “of telling everyone the answer.” Only then can
we leave enough room “for hearers to co-construct the
meaning” of their lives with God [Nancy Lammers Gross,
“The Feminization of the Pulpit,” Academy
Accents: The Newsletter of the Academy of Preachers 12
(Fall 1996) p. 3].
against such directionless spirituality stands the clear
assertions of Holy Scriptures. These are the “words of
eternal life” which can’t be found anywhere else (John
6:68). They are the one thing that is needful (Luke 10:42).
assertions can still be twisted. So Luther goes on to say that
the “very great light of certain truth [in Christianity]
ensures victory over…. obscure or ambiguous words [and] all
evasive subtleties [omnes
argutias elusorias]” (LW
33:185-186). It is against these ambiguities and evasions that
assertions must draw the line.
when Christianity becomes subtle, it loses its force. No
longer is it clear how it stacks up. No longer can its meaning
be spelled out. And so we become mumblers. We don’t speak
“vigorously and confidently” (LW
21:9). We talk as if we had “a mouth full of hot mush” (LW
34:87). And so we mumble – just mumble – and thereby lose
the “clear, distinct word of God” (LW
37:278, 279). We say “Jesus Christ is the savior… mumble,
mumble, mumble… and I love him… mumble,
mumble, mumble… you can too… mumble,
mumble, mumble.” And most of this is said under our
breath. Then, that’s the end of it. So ends our witness.
“plain, blunt speaking” takes a holiday (LW
33:105). This makes us “stammerers” and “vain
16:276, 275). We’re “empty talkers and garrulous
chatterers” (LW 25:447). And so we “doubt, vacillate [and] wander about” (LW
8:212-213). At the very most, all we do is “ramble off into
good-for-nothing fables” (LW 44:57), which amount to little, if anything.
Way of Contrast
also believed these assertions were reinforced “by contrast
[contentionem] and antithesis” (LW
33:287). But this abstract point can elude us. We can easily
miss it. Even though the famous philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza
(1632-1677), codified it by saying that all “meaning comes
through contrast [determinatio
est negatio]” (Letter 50, June 2, 1674, to Jarig Jellis),
we’re still puzzled by it. And even though Luther would
surely have liked it, we still aren’t gripped by it. Maybe
what is needed, then, are some concrete texts to offset the
abstractness of this principle.
then, take John 3:16 as our first example – a verse many
suppose is at the heart of the New Testament. It says that
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that
whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal
life.” Now what’s the upshot of that? It says eternal life
comes through faith in Christ. But how urgent is this? What if
I turn down the offer? What then?
3:36 explains: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life;
he who does do obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath
of God rests upon him.” Now John 3:16 is cleared up. By
contrasting love with wrath, it helps us see the consequences
of belief and disobedience. Without this contrast we’re left
wondering if there are any loopholes. So this contrast saves
the day. For “to explain oneself by amplification and
antithesis is the art of effective address” [Luther’s
House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996) 2:192].
take 1 John 5:11. It says that “he who has the Son has life;
he who has not the Son of God has not life.” This tight
correlation between having and not having clarifies salvation
– closing all the loopholes.
this clarity isn’t for gloating over our salvation
(Ephesians 2:8). For we must never ridicule those who don’t
believe as we do. “Do not rejoice” when your opponents
stumble, we’re told (Proverbs 24:17). Humility before God
and thanksgiving to him should guide us instead (Luke 18:13;
Colossians 2:6-7). And so we believe with Luther that Jesus
was a man “consumed with a constant sorrow” because of his
own people’s rejection of him (LW
take the case of Adolf Hilter (1889-1945) and his persecution
of the church in
no objections to Christians who confessed that Jesus is Lord;
but he was enraged when they confessed that Jesus is Lord and
Hitler is not…. [So] if we do not have the confidence to
say, “We condemn,” if we still want to indulge in
innocuous, sweet-sounding affirmations that can neither give
offense nor engender strong loyalties, then it is a sure sign
that we are not ready to confess at all [Arthur C. Cochrane, The
Church’s Confession Under
Hitler, Second Edition (1962, 1976) pp. 211-212].
Anatomy of a Mumbler
even with this frontal attack leveled by Luther himself, our
mumbling doesn’t end. We still go along with St. Peter. Why
are we like this? Why do we continue to mumble anyway? We’re
supposed to pray that God would help us keep the Christian
faith “clear and distinct” – even though it appears to
many to be “repulsive [abhorreat]”
(BC, p. 139). So we should never had taken up mumbling in the first
place. But we did. Now why is that?
Shame. One reason is that we’re embarrassed by our Lord
and his salvation (Mark 14:4-5). They look so weird and
extreme to us. Being saved from death, for instance, by one
man’s death (Hebrews 2:14; 2 Corinthians 5:17), is a
mind-blower. And saying Jesus is the only savior, and that
only a few will be saved (Acts 4:12; Matthew 7:14), seems over
the top as well. And so we continue to mumble. We think it’s
sounding stupid by saying too much– and giving ourselves to
ideas that we can’t justify.
trimming of the truth is pervasive in the industrialized
world. Under its sway, Christianity is reduced to “a
diversionary, mindless, celebrity-driven, and well-marketed”
entertainment business [Dick Staub, The
Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith
and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite (2007)
pp. 40, 4].
we’ve been warned that Jesus will offend (Luke 2:35; 4:28,
7:23; John 6:60-61). So we shouldn’t try to purge
Christianity of its inherent offensiveness. Nor should we
imagine that our conversations with unbelievers will go
without a hitch! Disagreement and contention will be the name
of the game (Matthew 5:11; Jude 1:3, 1 Peter 3:15; Hebrews
11:35-38; Acts 5:41; 2 Corinthians 11:23-28). We’re rightly
warned, therefore, that if we’re ashamed of Jesus, he’ll
be ashamed of us in the next world (Mark 8:38). So let us
endure these offenses rather than trying to explain them away.
Love. And we also worry about sounding cruel. Saying most
people go to hell is a scorcher! Believing that following
Jesus includes denying ourselves and suffering (Luke 9:23; 1
Peter 4:13) sounds pathological and masochistic. In the face
of these severities we retreat into the simple platitude that
God is love and we should be like him (1 John 4:19). Surely
that’s enough to say, we think. Surely it will get us by.
Going any further will only make trouble for ourselves. But
then Luther’s contentionem
however, only makes short-shrift of love. For it in fact also
requires sacrifice (1 John 4:10) and so our simple platitudes
won’t work. Loving, then, requires us to “count the
cost” (Luke 14:28, 19:20-27). But then we’re quickly back
into assertions, contestation and offense. Love won’t and
must not keep us out of “the good fight of faith” (1
Timothy 6:12). For it rages on, regardless.
Mystery. And mumbling also seems justified because God is
mysterious and we don’t know as much as we think we do about
him. For our minds fall short of completely comprehending the
divine. God, after all, is beyond us, being the great “mysterium
tremendum” [R. Otto, The
Idea of the Holy (1917, 1958) pp. 12-40].
this indeed is true, as far as it goes. The New Testament
doesn’t wipe away all mystery (Romans 11:33, 1 Corinthians
13:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:7). But that fact alone doesn’t
leave us in the dark (John 1:5). Enough is still revealed for
us to be able to believe in Christ as the Savior and be saved
(John 20:31; Matthew 11:25-27). This revelation can still
makes us certain (1 Corinthians 15:58) – but never because
of our own insights (2 Corinthians 3:4-5). What we rejoice in,
then, is a mystery, “hidden for ages” alright, but a
mystery, mind you, that has now been revealed to us “through
the church” and its message (Ephesians 3:9-10).
is Our Righteousness
can we be clear about the Gospel is spite of all these road
blocks? Can we side with
yes we can – if only we believe in the “source” of that
salvation, Christ Jesus himself (Hebrews 5:9). We must not
look to ourselves to set things straight. For we can’t save
ourselves from the mess of obfuscation into which we have
slid. Only Christ can heal our sin-sick souls (Mark 2:17).
that the sinful woman in Luke 7:50 was saved by her faith. And
so we must be like her. Just as she didn’t have to set all
past wrongs right, neither will we have to find ways to tell
the hard truth of the Gospel at every turn. For we are not
saved by “works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Our salvation
is not based on our own “exertion” (Romans 9:16). “Our
righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1
Corinthians 1:30) are instead in Jesus. So when we believe in
him, we’re set straight. What twists us up is when we
“drift away” from this great salvation (Hebrews 2:1).
we feel badly about this mess we’ve made for ourselves, we
can still believe in spite of it all. For faith doesn’t need
a perfect place from which to operate. It can lift us up right
from where we are. For faith “has its existence in
penitence,” and is “strengthened in… afflictions,”
rather than hampered by them (BC,
From the Wrath of God
power faith has comes from the One in whom we believe. And
Jesus is that One. He was steadfast and righteous (Philippians
2:8; Hebrews 5:8) and so all who believe in him can be the
same – albeit imperfectly. For indeed, when we believe in
him we share in his righteousness (2 Corinthians 3:18,
righteousness is that God loves him – and he does so because
he died for the sins of the world (John 10:17). When we
believe in Christ, God extends his love even to us (John
for all of this divine love to flow our way (Ephesians 1:8),
Jesus had to die in our place on the cross, being punished for
our sins (1 John 4:10). By so dying, Jesus saves all who
believe in him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). This is the
only possible reason for his dying in our place (LW
52:253). For it was God’s will to strike him in our place
(Isaiah 53:10; 1 Peter 2:24; BC,
p. 292). By so doing Jesus satisfies God’s justice and pays
what he owed, “with his own precious blood” (1 Peter 1:19;
BC, p. 414).
this force in Jesus’ crucifixion lifts the guilt from our
backs for the wrongs we have done and continue to do. Now we
aren’t any longer consumed with that guilt (2 Corinthians
5:15; 1 John 3:20). And this is a monumental gift – being
set free from guilt. It’s not something we can do for
ourselves – try though we may. “Nowhere else” can we
find it, than through “God’s grace for the sake of
Christ’s vicarious satisfaction” (LHP
so we sing glory be to Jesus! What a relief he is! This is
because guilt is so troubling.
was gnawing [rodebar]
at my inner self. I was violently overcome by a fearful sense
of shame [pudore horribili]….
What accusations against myself did I not bring? With what
verbal rods [sententiarum verberibus]
did I not scourge my soul?.... The only thing left… was a
mute trembling [trepidatio]….
I was deeply disturbed in spirit, angry with indignation and
distress that I was not entering into my… covenant with you,
Rodebar! – eating on ourselves like a rodent – that’s
how hard guilt – pudore
– is on us. No wonder then that the faithful sing praises to
Christ! Be done with sententiarum verberibus!
So we gather around the altar and receive Christ’s body and
blood – in the Lord’s Supper. For it’s our great
blessing and thanksgiving!
So fight for the clarity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And basking in
the glory of it all, do works in Jesus’ name (Colossians
Today let your good work be the anger of David, which
was “greatly kindled” against the oppression and violence,
told him by Nathan the prophet (2 Samuel 12:5). Let his
righteous indignation be an example for us all to follow.
Don’t, therefore, be ironic, indifferent and blasé –
thinking life is a joke. Know that anger has its place. Keep
an ethical fire burning deep in your soul. Set out to make the
world a better place (Genesis 2:15; Psalm 72:4; Romans 12:9).
Do so knowing you’ll never fully succeed. Do so, then, with
an eager longing for eternity (2 Peter 3:12; Hebrews 9:28)!
as preached, but with a few changes)