By Pastor Marshall

God’s Cataracts: Faith Triumphing Over Feelings

Deny Yourself

For Christians Only

Making the Team: Understanding Matthew 7:21

Somber Lutherans: What We Can Learn from the Sad Danes

Deathly Evangelism

Difficult, Dangerous & Dialectical: Fighting Boredom in the Church

Truth & Beauty: 1 Timothy 3:15 & Psalm 50:2

Wayward and Harmful Teaching: Sizing Up the Lutheran Women Today Bible Study

Waiting for Christ: Why Belief in Him Matters

Rejecting Love: Pondering Philemon 1.7


NEW RELEASE:  Pastor Marshall's last book, "Pandemic Sermons," has just been released at It is in full color.  These sermons are from 2020 and 2021.  If you would like a copy, you can order it at Also, has an option to choose that a percentage of each purchase can go to First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, if you would like to sign up for that.

“I have enjoyed reading to my inestimable benefit Pastor Marshall’s new book, Kierkegaard in the Pulpit (2016). It is surely the only one of its kind.”  

Dr. Carl E. Braaten,

Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  




God’s Cataracts:

Faith Triumphing Over Feelings


The Rev. Ronald F. Marshall

Who would want to be yelled at in church? No one, I would think, except perhaps for the maladjusted and brow-beaten. So why do preachers, on occasion, still thunder from the pulpit? If it’s offensive to do so, why not give it up? If it’s counter-productive – preventing people from listening and trying to understand – why do it at all? Wouldn’t it be better just to stop all the ranting and raving, and give up on this hellfire and brimstone preaching? Otherwise the best and brightest among us will think that Christianity is nothing but a “disaster” [Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, ed. Lucien Price (1954, 2001) pp. 172-73, 27-28, 2, 59]!

 Our Noisy Book

Well, as sensible as that sounds, it’s actually more difficult than that. This is because these outbursts from the pulpit have to do with what’s being preached itself – and not because of a bad attitude on the part of the preacher. For this thunder comes from the Bible! That’s because the Bible – if the truth be known – is a very noisy book! Left on the shelf, closed up and unread, it’s very quiet indeed. But once it’s opened and read aloud from – all sorts of thunder and lightning, yelling and screaming, break forth! For “the voice of the Lord makes the oaks whirl and strips the forest bare”! (Psalm 29:9). And “behold the storm of the Lord! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest” (Jeremiah 23:19). And in the presence of the Lord, there is the “sound... like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2:2) and “like the sound of many waters” (Revelation 1:15)!

       So if the pastor’s voice is to “blend” in the sermon with that of God’s, as Martin Luther (1483-1546) championed, then our pulpits will be noisy (Luther’s Works 24:66). Muffling sermons with pillows, then, will only inauthenticate them. That’s because when preachers are faithful to their callings, they become completely immersed in the Scriptures (LW 29:31), and that makes them think and speak the way the Bible does (LW 25:261)! Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) – that great American preacher, known best for his Enfield sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741) – also believed this. He said that preachers should shout, shock, and display chaotic “distemper” in the pulpit – and avoid being frigid and stale [P. Miller, Jonathan Edwards (1949, 1981) pp. 143, 158, 205, 170, 160]. And Edwards himself practiced this. And because Luther, years before him, thought the same, he added that preachers should be God’s thunder clouds or “cataracts” [cataracte dei] (LW 10:156)! That would then make all pulpits very noisy places!

     And this thunder isn’t dreamed up, but comes from God himself. So in Exodus 19:19, God speaks from Mt. Sinai “in thunder,” when giving the Ten Commandments. And that sets the stage to the end of the Bible when the risen Christ appears, standing by the throne of God in “peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:5). Here the word of the Lord is a banging hammer, breaking apart the rocks of our rebellion (Jeremiah 23:29). And when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, he does so with a loud shout (John 11:43). And on the cross, when he saves us from our sins, Christ bellows out with a loud cry (Matthew 27:50) – making him sound like a great giant yelling about his victory (LW 25:312). So God’s voice is majestic – roaring with thunder (Job 37:4, 40:9; Psalm 18:13; 2 Samuel 22:14; Revelation 6:1, 19:17). We must never then suppose that we can somehow press down God’s “tongue with a cord” in order to make him speak only soft words to us (Job 41:1, 3)! Without that roaring thunder, we’ll never get to “grow up” as we’re supposed to do [G. MacDonald, Thieves in the Temple (2010) p. xi]!

 The Storm of the Lord

It’s no wonder, then, that God often shows up in storms (Job 38:1; Deuteronomy 33:26; Ezekiel 1:4; Nahum 1:3; Acts 2:2). But do we truly understand the wallop that they pack? These storms have been known to rip off people’s heads – sometimes having the force of up to a “half a million atomic bombs” [Lyall Watson, Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind (1984) pp. 52, 56]! Their sound can be like “numberless voices, elevated to the highest tone of screaming” [Erik Larson, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (2000) p. 120] or with “an intensity approaching 120 decibels [which is] about 10 times louder than a chain saw or pneumatic drill” [Paul Douglas, Restless Skies: The Ultimate Weather Book (2007) p. 144]. No wonder these storms can be “deafening” [Lorian Hemingway, A World Turned Over: A Killer Tornado and the Lives It Changed Forever (2002) p. 62]. Hurricanes can hurl more than “a million cubic yards of water,” with one cubic yard weighing “sixteen-hundred pounds, or almost a ton” [Stephan Bechtel, Roar of the Heavens (2006) p. 79]! And so the 1938 New England hurricane, on its way north, “uprooted and downed 275 million trees [and] smashed 26,000 cars” [Matthys Levy, Why the Wind Blows (2007) p. 53]. And to think that God comes to us in such violent storms – (Ezekiel 1:28; Revelation 1:17)! –surely this should give us pause.

That Alleged Small Voice

But what about that “still small voice” of the Lord in 1 Kings 19:12? It isn’t noisy at all! Why shouldn’t it set the decibel level for sermons? Well, that can’t be because the original Hebrew of this verse, הד ממה ולקּ, is difficult to translate. Only the word for voice, ולקּ, is clear in it. The other two words that modify it are rare and therefore hard to translate [see J. Lust, “A Gentle Breeze or a Roaring Thunderous Sound?” Vetus Testamentum 25 (January 1975) 110-115]. These problems make this verse “endlessly enigmatic” [Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings (2000) p. 236]. Nevertheless because the context of this verse is one of a “demanding confrontation,” it’s unlikely that it would mean anything that suggests some sort of “intimate solace” (Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings).

       And because of its close parallels to Psalm 93:3, a suitable translation of the modifier, ממה, probably is “roaring” rather than “soft” or “still”! (Lust, p. 113). 1 Kings 19:12, then, needs to capture the “overriding majesty” it seems to intend contextually [Walter Brueggemann, 1 Kings (1982) p. 89]. The surprising result, then, is that 1 Kings 19:12 is anything but a quiet verse. It’s not much different than the many other verses about God’s thunderous, roaring voice. In fact, it’s actually quite like them. This verse, then, doesn’t tone down God’s voice at all, but instead enhances it.

Adding a Trumpet Stop

While in graduate school in Los Angeles, I attended a church with a beautiful pipe organ that had a trumpet stop. I remember singing the grand Agincourt hymn, “O Wondrous Type!” (Deo Gracias, 15th century) with that stop wide open. But when it came to the sermon, it was a different matter! Now it was bedtime story telling. The lights were turned down, a soothing prayer was said, and people actually dozed off. What a travesty! Where were God’s cataracts? Clearly a trumpet stop was missing from that pulpit.

       But I don’t mean by this that the trumpet stop should always be blaring. Jesus, after all, calmed the storm in Matthew 8:26 – even though that storm was actually caused by the “discontent” he preached [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. N. Lenker, 2:97]. The only point is that this trumpet stop has to have a place (LW 4:52; 14:244, 335; 26:187; 31:335; 35:18) – otherwise none of us will ever be “fit hearers of the Gospel” (LW 4:49)! So I disagree with Sharon Baker who says that we should quit spouting warnings in the pulpit, with a “loud, firm voice” [Razing Hell (2010) p. 148]! This however doesn’t mean pastors should always be yelling! No, this trumpet stop is just for the pulpit. And this doesn’t mean pastors are phony either. All it means is that they have different roles. So in casual conversations preachers will be gentle and meek, just as all Christians should be (Matthew 5:5; Galatians 5:23).

       The trumpet stop in the pulpit, then, puts the lie to the view that sermons should be like sedate lectures. No, they should actually be more like that arcane public declaration in the town square where one shouts out, “Hear ye, hear ye!” For that gives sermons the freedom they need to explode with the thunder of the Lord – even though many will be upset by it. Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) called these outbursts part of the very “apostolic voice” that all sermons should have (Kierkegaard’s Writings 5:69).

       So let there be trumpet stops in the front of the church as well as in the back – since what’s good for the goose is good for the gander! And don’t let your feelings get in the way. For God wants his preaching cataracts to explode every now and then – even though our feelings may throw a fit (1 Corinthians 10:13; Hebrews 12:4)! But never mind that, for “faith is opposed to feelings” and so, “in spite of” them, let the Word of the Lord rule (SML, 2:244)!


The Messenger:

Newsletter of First Lutheran Church of West Seattle

 November 2010




By Pastor Marshall

Stretching across the New Testament is the call to deny yourself (Matthew 16.24; Mark 8.34; Luke 9.23) – as well as to control yourself and die to yourself (1 Corinthians 7:5, 37, 9.25; 2 Corinthians 5.14; Galatians 5.23; 2 Timothy 1.7; 2 Peter 1.6; Galatians 6.14; Romans 6.6; Colossians 3.5; 1 Peter 2.24; Luke 14.26; John 12.25; 2 Timothy 3.2-4; Revelation 3.17). This is because we have “no greater enemy” than ourselves (Luther’s Works 42.48). And so we must be reined in. The Old Testament says the same – albeit more indirectly (Psalms 39.5, 62.9, 90.5, 94.11, 102.11, 26, 103.14, 144.4; Isaiah 40.17, 41.24). And Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who believed we needed a self to relate to God and our neighbors, thought we also had to sacrifice it once we got it (Christian Discourses [KW 17:53, 84, 91, 127, 129, 132] 1848). So, he wrote, the Christian must “fight for himself with himself within himself” (KW 5:143).

Because this task is so strange and arduous, we need to know more about it. First we learn that it excludes loving, enjoying, pampering, enriching and fulfilling the self. Knowing ourselves, however, is acceptable provided it’s primarily about our sinfulness (Mark 7.20-23) – as is self-defense, if it’s about guarding our faith (1 Peter 3.15; LW 23:330).

What is included begins with persistent thanksgiving (Ephesians 5.20; 1 Thessalonians 5.18). It’s to replace our complaining – even though what troubles us doesn’t go away. It’s just that self-denial opens our eyes to the neglected good we have (LW 3:343). And that makes thanksgiving more liberating than delusional.

Secondly self-denial furthers our labor (Luke 10:2). It undercuts idleness and leisure (Luke 12:19; 2 Thessalonians 3:11; Jeremiah 48:10; Amos 6:1; LW 7:221; 8:261) and all that holds us back. It makes us worker bees – not queen bees. From this flows the prized but elusive humility all Christians are required to have (Luke 18:14; James 4:6).

Finally the joy that attends to self-denial conquers our sadness (LW 8:329). This joy is – like Christian peace – quite beyond us (Philippians 4:7). It’s far more than superficial happiness. It’s rather about keeping depression from derailing our work (Philippians 4:11; Hebrew 12:12). So Luther rightly says we’re neither “elated by praise nor cast down by insults” – because adversity and good fortune are “alike to us” (LW 27:102; 4:149).

Now, even though we don’t ever practice this denial perfectly, we still keep at it because of all the blessings it alone is able to deliver (John 6:68).


(reprinted from The Messenger, June 2008)









For Christians Only

By The Rev. Ronald F. Marshall

First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, WA

February 2005


         1. Only Christians Go to Heaven. The Bible says there is salvation in "no other name" than that of Christ Jesus (Acts 4.12). It teaches that if we don't believe in Christ and obey him, "God's wrath rests upon us" (John 3.36). This wrath brings the horrors of "eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thessalonians 1.9; Matthew 25.46) in a "place of torment" (Luke 16.28). In this "outer darkness" there will be "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 25.30). It surely won’t be a place to go to party with all our rebellious and carefree friends.

         Only belief in Christ can save us from this torment because he alone brings us the grace of God the Father (John 14.6). So if we love Christ Jesus, the Father will then love us and save us (John 14.21). This is because Jesus dies for us (John 10.17) and offers up his life as a sacrifice for sin to the Father (Ephesians 5.2). No one else can do this for us (1 Timothy 2.5; Hebrews 9.26). He is the pure sacrifice (1 Peter 1.19). His death pays the penalty for our sin (2 Corinthians 5.20; Colossians 2.14) and makes peace with God (Romans 5.1; Colossians 1.20). When we accept this sacrifice and entrust our well-being to Christ our Lord (Romans 3.25, 6.22, 10.9), we are saved. Otherwise, we are lost (1 John 5.10-12). So salvation comes only "through faith" (Ephesians 2.8).

         2. Only a Few Believers. How many believe this? Jesus hoped at least some would (Luke 18.8; 1 Peter 5.18). He knew it was "offensive" and that most would cast it aside (Matthew 11.6; John 6.61). This was largely because it was based on his gruesome, agonizing, repulsive death (John 3.14; 12.32). So only a "few" would end up believing (Matthew 7.14, 22.14). Just a "remnant" would take it to heart (Romans 9.27). And even they would only go kicking and screaming – if you will (Romans 9.16-18; Acts 9.3-9; 14.22; Romans 6.4). Even among those who say they are Christians, many actually are not – Luther estimated upwards to 90% are phonies (LW 23:398-400)! And this small number with its terrible consequences makes quite clear the "severity of God" (Romans 11.22; Hebrews 10.29). Oh, what a "fearful thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10.31). Indeed, God Almighty is to be feared (Matthew 10.28).

         3. Scared Away By Suffering. Christianity – when first believed – appears to be filled with joy (Luke 2.10 vs. Luke 12.49-53). But when we realize that suffering with Christ is also required (1 Peter 4.13; Romans 8.17; Matthew 16.24), we fall away (Matthew 13.21; Galatians 1.6). This suffering includes being vilified for Christian truths (2 Timothy 4.1-5; 1 Corinthians 1.18). Luther called this contestable, unpopular truth, aspra veritas or "rough truth" (LW 11:58) and even something "absurd" (LW 16:183). Most don't want the embarrassment of this. All we want from Christianity is a "belly sermon" that will "enrich" us in worldly terms (LW 23:5,11). So if Christianity were free of suffering, many more would sign-up. But it isn't, so only a few love Jesus with a "love undying" (Ephesians 6.23). These are called the foolish ones (1 Corinthians 4.10-13).

         True salvation only comes with "fear and trembling" (Philippians 2.12). So the "Christian life is nothing else than.... incessantly... purging out whatever pertains to the old Adam [who is] irascible, spiteful, envious, unchaste, greedy, lazy, proud... and unbelieving." Without this "earnest attack on the old man," our faith is "hollow" (The Book of Concord, p. 445; LW 26:269). This is because the freedom faith brings (2 Corinthians 3.17) doesn't belong to the flesh. It's only in our hearts – unseating the guilt for our sinfulness. So the battle must rage. The hammer of God's Law must strike us hard and repeatedly (Jeremiah 23.29; LW 26:310). For "the Law has dominion over the flesh, but the promise [of the Gospel] reigns sweetly in the conscience" (LW 26:301).

         4. Historic, Biblical Salvation Affirmed. In the Lutheran Confessions (1580) these Biblical teachings are affirmed. They teach that Christ will "give eternal life and everlasting joy" to those who believe in him, but "hell and eternal punishment" to those who don't (The Book of Concord, Tappert ed., p. 38, AC 17:3). Faith in Christ alone saves us from this doom. For he alone "has snatched us poor lost creatures from the jaws of hell... and restored us to the Father's favor and grace,.... not with silver and gold, but with his own precious blood," through which he has made "satisfaction" to God by paying what we "owed" (The Book of Concord, p. 414, LC 2:30-31).

         The Roman Catholics however aren't as clear about this. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (1999), it says Jesus Christ "alone brings salvation" (§432), but under special circumstances one can be saved if he "does the will of God in accordance with his own understanding of it" (§1260). The same goes for the August 6, 2000 Papal Declaration Dominus Iesus. It says that the Church of Christ is not "one way of salvation alongside... other religions" (§21), but that in other religions "salvation in Christ is accessible by... grace" when Christ "enlightens them in a way which is accommodated to their spiritual and material situation" (§20). This is a too costly qualification!

         5. Overhauling Heaven. In the face of historic, Biblical salvation, there remain Christians today asking for a change. They want the church to say that all good people go to heaven whether they believe in Jesus or not. Some are even asking that everybody be allowed to go. This is because the wicked need mercy and purging too. Besides, being tortured for eternity is much too long. These views are carefully, clearly and briefly presented of late by Jacques Ellul in chapter 14 of What I Believe (1989), by Richard John Neuhaus in chapter 2 of Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (2000), and by Bishop Kallistos Ware in chapter 12 of The Inner Kingdom (2000). This requested change is called Universalism [Universal Salvation? The Current Debate (2004), eds. Robin A. Perry & Christopher H. Partridge].

         It is clearly gentler and kinder. Damnation makes Christianity morally and intellectually untenable. The renowned Sir Bertrand Russell thought damnation was "a doctrine of cruelty" that discredited Christianity [Why I am Not a Christian (1957) p. 18]. Universalism makes more sense by being closer to how ordinary punishments work. Only the guilty are punished and for no longer than a lifetime. It also picks up on those few verses that seem to be universalistic (1 Corinthians 15.22; 1 Peter 4.6; 1 Timothy 2.4).

         Finally it also honors the first covenant God made with the Jews, thereby providing for their salvation apart from belief in Jesus as Lord and God (pace John 20.28). The American Catholic Bishops have submitted a draft statement on this point, declaring an end to any plea for "the conversion of the Jews," simply because in Judaism they "already dwell in a saving covenant with God" ["Reflections on Covenant and Mission ," Origins (September 5, 2002) pp. 220, 221].

         6. Using Wrong Presuppositions. Opening up heaven to more than Christians is certainly kind-hearted and open-minded. But that doesn’t justify it. Universalism errs the way it begins. It assumes kindness and generosity are supreme. But for Christianity this is not so. Other qualities matter more. Distress is one (Romans 8.18). So are punishments (Hebrews 12.10), suffering (Romans 5.3), loss (Matthew 16.23), trials (1 Peter 1.6), tribulation (Acts 14.22) and sorrow (John 16.20). This surprising view is derived from the centrality of Christ's crucifixion (John 12.32; 1 Corinthians 2.2). Following that conviction, the true "treasury of Christ" is not the absence of conflict and pain but the "impositions and obligations of punishments" (LW 31:227).

         Without these prior, superior qualities in place, Christian love – that is kindness and generosity – degenerates into "stupid affection" (LW 13:153). So faith and truth must always be placed high above love in Christianity (LW 26:103; 27:38; 23:330; 1:122). Illustrative of this most contentious point, note the lack of affection for the young rich man in Mark 10.22-23, for the damned rich man in Luke 16.24-31, for the lying Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.1-13, and for idolaters in Deuteronomy 13.8.

         7. An Old Heresy. Universalism is not new. Early on Origen of Alexandria (185-254) in his famous treatise On First Principles, argued for Universalism only to be condemned in 553 because of it in Constantinople at the Fifth Ecumenical Council. He believed in Universalism because “from [the original indestructible unity of God and all spiritual essence] it necessarily follows that the created spirit after fall, error, and sin must ever return to its origin, to being in God" [A. von Harnack, History of Dogma (1900) II:346]. This necessary restoration of all people to God is because there are no deep and durable fissures in the world that would keep the condemned from enjoying God's blessings forever. So for Origen this indestructible unity must result in Universalism.

         This idea comes more from Neoplatonic philosophy than from Biblical testimony. In the Bible we see the fissure between light and darkness (Luke 1.79) replicated permanently in that "great fixed chasm" between heaven and hell (Luke 16.26). For this reason Origen's view is wrong albeit wistful. It is not true that "in the end all the spirits in heaven and earth, nay, even the demons, are purified and brought back to God." But Origen knew the church would never go along with this. So he called it an "esoteric" doctrine and concluded: "For the common man it is sufficient to know that the sinner is punished," albeit only for a short while (Harnack, II:378). Origen may then well have agreed with Christian Gottlieb Barth (1799-1862): "Anyone who does not believe in the universal restoration is an ox, but anyone who teaches it is an ass" [Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology (1988) p. 4.].

         Well before Origen, God's people also challenged his fairness. In Ezekiel 18.25 we read: "Yet you say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear now, O house of Israel : Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?'" Similar lines are in Romans 3.5 and 9.14 with the same results. We don't know enough nor are we good enough to improve upon God's ways among us.

         8. Not All Are Saved in the Bible. Universalists argue that Acts 4.12 is about physical healings and not eternal salvation. They say that the word "salvation" can also mean healing. They also note that Acts 4.12 builds on the healing of the lame man in Acts 3.7. So the whole passage is "far removed from whether there is any 'saving' revelation of God outside Jesus" [John A. T. Robinson, Truth Is Two-Eyed (1979) p. 105]. But this is not so for two reasons. First there is still the exaltation of Christ even if it is only a physical healing. And secondly the two – healing and saving – actually go together: the lame man was healed because of his faith in Christ (Acts 3.13-21, 4.4).

         Universalists also point to Bible verses that say all will be saved, or all Israel at least will be saved (Romans 11.26). But this is not true. You cannot pass over faith when it comes to salvation. So, as Luther pointed out, these passages only mean that "God gives both [the ungodly and the godly] the light of the sun,.... but He does not save the faithless" (LW 28:262; 25:431). There is no salvation without faith in Christ, for "God himself cannot give heaven to him who does not believe" (LW 32:76). So regarding the salvation of the Jews, that too must come only through faith in Christ Jesus. For "the Old and New Covenants are not two... equal, parallel paths to salvation" [Roy H. Schoeman, Salvation is From the Jews (2003) p. 353].

         God therefore doesn't save groups of people all together at once. He saves people individually because of their faith in Christ Jesus. Just as we must die by ourselves – no one can do that for us, of course – no one else can believe for us either (LW 51:70; 45:108). So there are no exemptions or substitutions for individual believers believing. Jesus, remember, praised the faith of an individual over that of an entire nation: "Not even in Israel have I found such faith" (Matthew 8.10).

         9. All Religions Aren't Equal. We should not expect what Robley E. Whitson has called in his book, The Coming Convergence of World Religions (1971, 1992). The differences between Christianity and other religions matters to Christians. Acts 14.15 tells followers of other gods to "turn from those vain things to a living God."

         What makes these other ways useless and vain? It’s that they cannot give us everlasting life. Nothing more. For they may still have limited, moral value for Christians. Indeed, "we find in the religions an echo of God's activity in all expressions of life because God has not left himself without a witness among the nations (Acts 14.16-17), which means that the reality of God and his revelation lie behind the religions of humanity as anonymous mystery and hidden power" [Carl E. Braaten, No Other Gospel: Christianity Among the World's Religions (1992) pp. 67-68]. So Christians, for instance, are authorized to work with other religions on matters of "world peace, human rights, cultural enrichment, religious tolerance and care for the earth" (Braaten, p. 99).

         Studying, then, the exotic naturalistic religions photographed and described in Wade Davis' stunning book, Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (2001) has its place. So does Martin Luther's help in getting Theodor Bibliander's 1543 Latin translation of the Koran published along with his preface for it even when he condemned Islam itself (Word & World, Spring 1996). Studying other religions doesn't mean there's salvation to be found in them. Nevertheless it remains better to know them than not. For ignorance isn’t bliss (1 Peter 2.15).

         10. Boasting in Christ. Just because there's no salvation outside of Christianity, it doesn't mean Christians should be arrogant about it and ridicule other religions. Humility instead is to mark our lives – not pomposity (1 Peter 5.5). "Do nothing from... conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves" (Philippians 2.3). Buddhists, for instance, may be more devout than Christians. They may take their religion more seriously. That should be acknowledged if true. Jesus seemed to do so, urging "making friends" even with the unrighteous ones (Luke 19.6).

         Even so we must never be embarrassed or ashamed of Christ (Luke 9.26). He is the Lord and Savior. He is the only mediator (1 Timothy 2.5) and advocate we have (1 John 2.1). So in him we are to boast – though never of ourselves too for believing in him (Galatians 6.14). Whatever arrogance, then, we may have, it cannot be for ourselves. It must rather be an "arrogance of the Holy Spirit" (LW 24:118). This is an arrogance that gives all the glory to God (1 Corinthians 10.31). It is right for Christians to do just that.

         11. Praying for Unbelievers. We shouldn't castigate unbelievers. We shouldn't ever gloat over their condemnation and coming misery. "Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles" (Proverbs 24.17). Instead we should pray for their redemption. We should pray that they may be saved even "contrary to nature" (Romans 11.24).

         Even though we know only a few will be saved and that it all depends on God's mercy, we should nevertheless pray for unbelievers (James 5.l6). But isn't this against God's will? No. He expects us to have mercy on others as God himself has had mercy on us (Ephesians 4.32). St. Paul even was ready to give his salvation away to the damned that they might be saved instead of him (Romans 9.3). So our prayer should be: “Have mercy on those who do the devil's bidding. Crush their hearts and bring them to repentance and faith in your dear Son, Christ Jesus, that they may know the joy of your salvation. Nevertheless, thy will be done (Matthew 26.39). Amen.”

         This prayer is not limited to men, the wealthy and politically free (Galatians 3.28). Neither is it limited to certain ethnic groups (Acts 10.35; Matthew 28.19). Christ after all truly died for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2.2; 1 Peter 2.24).

         12. Shaming the Wise. Believing in the unique salvation of Christ Jesus is not based on plausibility (1 Corinthians 2.4). It isn't for the wise whom God has shamed with his offensive word (1 Corinthians 1.27). It isn't a coherent philosophy of life (Colossians 2.8). It’s rather based on heavenly (Philippians 3.20) standards of possibility (Luke 1.37; 18.27) and goodness (John 6.27). Intellectual respectability isn’t the right measurement.

         So rather than discussing God's salvation and assessing it, we are to hear it and keep it (Luke 11.28). Any intervening interpretative or evaluative stage in between the hearing and obeying is ruled out. We are to take the message in like an infant does her mother’s milk (LW 16:93). No discussion, critique or revision. Just take it straight. In this simple, primitive faith is power to be come children of God (John 1.12) – to be born from above (John 3.3). It turns us into new creations (2 Corinthians 5.17). It makes us faithful unto death (Revelation 2.10). Bickering about Christianity puts an end to this new creation. And so we know why Jesus says he's not for the wise and understanding (Matthew 11:25-27). If you can't take him in with a childlike mind, you'll never believe in him (Matthew 18.3). This trust is the life of the Spirit in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 2.13).

         There is so much more about Christianity besides damnation that is offensive. The list is nearly endless: Keep the old faith (Jude l.3), A message without human origin (Galatians 1.12), I'd rather be dead (Philippians 1.23), Virginal conception (Luke 1.35), Homosexual behavior is wrong (Romans 1.27), I don't live my life (Galatians 2.20), Be heavenly-minded (Colossians 3.2), Christ is better than anything (Philippians 3.8), Blood relations aren't family (Mark 3.35), Rejoice always (Philippians 4.4), Serving only God (Luke 4.8), I can do all things (Philippians 4.13), Pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5.17), Even lustful looks are adultery (Matthew 5.28), Awards are bad (John 5.44), Rejoice when hated (Luke 6.23), Care nothing about food or clothes (Matthew 6.25), You must drink Jesus' blood (John 6.53), The tough way is best (Matthew 7.14), The dead live (Luke 7.15), Pleasures are bad (Luke 8.14), The sighted must be blinded (John 9.39), Let the dead bury themselves (Luke 9.60), Threatened by wolves (Luke 10.3), Healing makes things worse (Luke 11.26), Don't cry until bloodied (Hebrews 12.4), Divided families are good (Luke 12.51), Hate yourself (John 12.25), Renounce everything (Luke 14.33), Human praise is bad (Luke 16.15), Pick up serpents (Mark 16.18), Deny yourself (Matthew 16.24), We are worthless (Luke 17.10), Keep praying even when ignored (Luke 18.1), Face your abuser alone (Matthew 18.15), Only God is good (Luke 18.19), Marriage is only for one man and one woman (Matthew 19.5), Divorce is bad (Matthew 19.9), Believe without evidence (John 20.29), The world is evil (1 John 5.19), Many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22.14), etc.

         So Luther was correct drawing his amazing conclusion: "Since God is a just judge, we must love and laud his justice and rejoice in God even when he miserably destroys the wicked in body and soul, for in all this his lofty and unspeakable justice shines forth. Thus even hell is no less full of good, the supreme good, than is heaven. The justice of God is God himself and God is the highest good. Therefore, even as his mercy, so must his justice or judgment be loved, praised, and glorified above all things" (LW 42:156).

         13. Only Jesus Knows His Own. The fact that only Christians go to heaven doesn't mean we know who they are. So Christians can't declare who's in and who's out. Christ will make that judgment in the end (John 5.22). Jesus knows his own and they know him (John 10.27). Until the end the weeds grow up with the wheat and who's whom will not be settled until the end (Matthew 13.41-43). None of us can perceive that intimate relationship between Christ and redeemed sinners (1 Corinthians 2.11-12).

         For a while we think we might know them by the fruits of their lives (Matthew 7.16). But things change. People drift away from salvation (Hebrews 2.1). Others come back into it (Luke 15.17). Only God sees into our hearts and knows our final disposition (1 Samuel 16.7; Matthew 15.8). He is the final judge – not us.

         Many haven't been able to endure this uncertainty about each other. So schemes have been devise. One of the most famous was that "good works" were "indispensable as a sign of election" [Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (1920, 1958) p. 115]. So people worked hard in order to prosper and thereby prove their salvation – which of course was supposedly granted freely to them through Christ Jesus. But because this scheme jumped-the-gun and usurped Christ's place as judge, it was a failure even though many relied on it anyway – and still do.

         14. Making Faith Possible. Why does God make it so difficult for us to believe? Why are we expected to believe that so many are damned to hell? Doesn't damnation destroy faith? No. It's actually the opposite.

 If God made good moral and intellectual sense he would be easily known and understood. No risk would be required to believe in him – no venturing out into what is unseen and only "hoped for" (Hebrews 11.1). But faith requires such a risk. So God’s appearances upset us to test us. Can we believe? His love looks like hate (Matthew 15.26-28). His wisdom looks foolish and his power puny (1 Corinthians 1.23-25). In this way he makes "room for faith." He creates a risk. Then we can "believe him merciful when he saves so few." After all, "if I could comprehend how... God can be merciful and just who displays so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith" (LW 33:62-63).

         15. Untying the Knots. Christians value simple explanations and straightforward statements (Galatains 2.14; 1 Corinthians 14.8; 2 Corinthians 4.2; Ephesians 4.14; 2 Peter 1.20, 3.16). We think beating-around-the-bush is bad. So why is this essay on heaven and hell so involved? Couldn't it have been shorter and simpler? I think not.

         Our situation is like that of the Cambridge University philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951). He thought philosophy should be simple – all the while knowing that it simply couldn't be. So he concluded: "Why is philosophy so complicated? It ought, after all, to be completely simple. – Philosophy unties the knots in our thinking, which we have tangled up in an absurd way; but to do that, it must make movements which are just as complicated as the knots.... The complexity of philosophy is not in its matter, but in our tangled understanding" [Philosophical Remarks (1964, 1975) p. 52].

         If it were not for all our knotty confusions, we could have simply sung these verses of Luther's hymn on Christ [Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) No. 79] and left it at that:

To his disciples spoke the Lord,

"Go out to ev'ry nation,

And bring to them the living Word

And this my invitation:

Let ev'ryone abandon sin

And come in true contrition

To be baptized, and thereby win

Full pardon and remission,

And heav'nly bliss inherit."


But woe to those who cast aside

This grace so freely given;

They shall in sin and shame abide

And to despair be driven.

For born in sin, their works must fail,

Their striving saves them never;

Their pious acts do not avail,

And they are lost forever,

                                 Eternal death their portion.                                  


Making the Team


Understanding Matthew 7.21

By Pastor Marshall


Some of us have the terrible childhood memory of getting cut from the school baseball team or some other such team. We so wanted the glory of playing in the big game and helping the team win. But no, it wouldn’t happen. We were cut because we were told we weren’t good enough.

      While these memories are painful and even affect some of us deep into our adult years, they do even more damage to the Church, if you can believe it. How so? What does the church have to do with getting cut from a baseball team? Well, it is precisely because of bad memories like these that we don’t ever want anybody to think that they will be cut from the Christian team. So we tell everyone that personal performance before God doesn’t matter. It’s all about acceptance, grace and love. Nothing more. So whether you can hit the ball, field the ball or throw the ball doesn’t matter a wit in Christianity.

      But the problem is that this idea of Christianity conflicts with the Bible. This deep desire to make sure everybody is included isn’t what the Bible teaches. Remember, mind you, that five of those ten maidens got cut from the team in Matthew 25.10 – and the door was shut, we are told, never to open again, while they were off filling their lamps with oil (something they should have done earlier and were warned about long before the wedding happened, but never bothered to do).

      This easy-going view of Christianity also conflicts with Philippians 2.12, which tells us to “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling. It also goes against 1 Timothy 6.12, which tells us to “fight” the good fight of faith. Most of all it goes against 1 Corinthians 9.24 which tells us to “compete” like a highly trained athlete, and run the race that is set before us, that we might win the prize! Many have pointed out this conflict before. Chief among them for me have been Martin Luther [see his catechisms (1529) and his Treatise on Good Works (1520) in Luther’s Works 44:21-114] and Søren Kierkegaard [see his parable of the Royal Coachman from 1851 in Kierkegaard Writings 21:85-87].

      So what are we to make of this conflict? It should drive us to ask what would cut us from the team. Here are the ways. We’re cut if we have no talent (that is, the gift of faith). We’re also cut if we’re lazy about our personal training regimen (that is, praying, repenting, fasting, reading Scriptures). And we’re cut if we don’t show up for practice (that is, the catechism, church classes, daily office of prayer). We’re also cut if we don’t listen to the coach (that is, obey God’s commands, submit to authority). And we’re cut if we skip the games (that is, profane the Sabbath, cut back on the tithe, don’t help the poor).

      Now consider these matters in light of Jesus’ words: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7.21). Then call on God to help you obey him – that you can make his team!

(Reprinted from The Messenger, September 2007)








Somber Lutherans:

What We Can Learn from the Sad Danes


The Rev. Ronald F. Marshall


In Wobegon Boy Garrison Keillor makes fun of what he calls "dark Lutherans." They are the unforgiving, unhappy ones. They were "strict about dress...and about the Sabbath: after church, you remained in a devotional mode for the rest of the day, sitting in a room with shades pulled, perusing a commentary on Habakkuk and Obadiah." After all, they chided, "Do you care so little for Him who shed His life's blood for you that you cannot spare one day out of seven to think of Him and of Him only?"

"Tobacco, fiction, dancing, bright clothing, fancy hairdos, worldly attainments, pride in any form" they were down on. But above all they were "opposed to moderation and compromise." Their religion was "part Christianity and part ancient Nordic precepts that the gods are waiting to smack you one if you have too good a time." So they sang:


The gift to be righteous is the gift to say no,

And depart from the place you should not go,

Renouncing the company of unclean souls,

And thus we are added to the saintly rolls.


No surprise they "believed in the utter depravity of man and...strict adherence to the literal truth of Scripture" (pp. 135-137).

Keillor's description of somber or "dark Lutherans" makes us snicker. But there is more to his account than a good laugh. I also see in it the value of somber Lutheranism for the church today. This is because at its heart Lutheranism is austere and foreboding. This truism, however, has gone begging in most churches today. Therefore we need to take up Keillor's picture of somber Lutherans, adjust it a bit, and see if we can give it new life today.

This somber version of Lutheranism is surely part of the mix that makes up Lutheranism today. But it dominates all the others because it is just these "dark" insights that gave rise to "the penetrating vision of Luther, the scholarly aplomb of Melanchthon, the irenic efficiency of the Concord formulators, the surging brilliance of Bach, the passionate wisdom of Kierkegaard, and the heroic integrity of Bonhoeffer" (Noll 33).

Somber Lutherans were probably best represented in North America by the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (1894-1962). These were the sad Danes as distinguished from the happy ones. Their principle pastors were Vilhelm Beck (1829-1901) and Peter Sorensen Vig (1854-1929), both of whom were inspired by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) (Hansen 14). But calling these Danish Lutherans sad or "holy" is unfair. Their demand for "repentance and moral rigor" did require them to break from the world but only so they could "return to it with the gospel" (Nichol 78-79). It is just this double movement of breaking with and returning to that is needed in American Lutheranism today.

One way to get a somber Lutheranism back into Lutheran churches today would be to promote and defend the following theological tenants.

The Holy Bible

Interpreting the Bible should give way to taking it in the way it is. Taking it in like a baby does her mother's milk would be the best model for Bible reading (LW 16:93). Bickering over which verses are reliable is a waste of time. We are justified in thinking so because the Bible contains "the pure, infallible, and unalterable Word of God" (Book of Concord, p. 8). Unlike any other human words, the Bible is the "absolutely infallible truth" (LW 1:122).

As such we no longer will be able to dodge the good book. The scientific study of the Bible has enabled us to do just that and was probably its raison d'être in the first place (Kierkegaard 34-35). As overpowering and non-negotiating it is supposed to kill us (Hosea 6:5). Then the Bible will once again function like a two-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12) rather than a wax nose to be shaped however we wish (LW 14:338).

We are afraid such a stance will lead us into discrediting absurdities (LW 16:183) – such as logical, psychological, moral and scientific howlers. Against this fear we are to bite the bullet and learn to live with the ignominy. We are to step out happily "into the darkness" and follow "nothing but the word, matter where or how it shines" (LW 52:196). That is why it is only those who have ears to hear (Mark 4:9) who will actually be able to follow the model of the nursing infant. So no argument will convince a naysayer of this.

The big problem with the modern view of the Bible, which claims its meaning hinges on our interpretation, is that the Bible then can no longer humble us in order to reform us (LW 3:348; 23:51). That view, then, enables us to defend ourselves against the Bible. But that is exactly what we do not need if we are to become obedient children of God. We need the Bible to have its way with us.

The Fear of God

We must learn again to fear and love God (SC I.1-22). Loving God is fairly understandable. We know it mean we should trust in him "and cheerfully do what he has commanded" (SC I.22). But fearing God is another matter. It has been widely watered down into respect and awe. But that misses the point. Fearing God is about worrying that he might send you to hell (Matthew 10:28). Indeed, we fear God because he "threatens to punish" us with "his wrath" (SC I.22). So to fear God properly we must fear the threats of hell. The Lutheran scholar, Matthew Hafenreffer (1561-1619), explains why hell is so scary:


The punishments of Hell.... are the most exquisite pains of soul and body..., arising from the fear and sense of the most just wrath and vengeance of God against sins, the most sad consciousness of which they carry about with them, the baseness of which is manifest, and of which, likewise, no remission afterwards, and, therefore, no mitigation or end can be hoped for. Whence, in misery, they will execrate, with horrible lamentation and wailing, their former impiety, by which they carelessly neglected the commandments of the Lord, the admonitions of their brethren, and all the means of attaining salvation; but in vain. For in perpetual anguish, with dreadful trembling, in shame, confusion, and ignominy, in inextinguishable fire, in weeping and gnashing of teeth, amidst that which is eternal and terrible, torn away from the grace and favor of God, they must quake among the devils, and be tortured without end to eternity (Schmid 658).


If these few lines were to be memorized and then taken to heart, we would fear the Lord as we should (Psalm 90:11). Then we would deeply believe and fervently know that God's wrath is no joke (LW 28:264). Then we would know why it is good to be hit with the hammer of hell (LW 26: 310). Such fears help us by driving us from despair to our only hope which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (LW 16:232).

The Sacrifice of Christ

In the face of this horrible divine wrath we are not without hope. Through faith in Christ we have a mediator who is the only one who can be "pitted against God's wrath and judgment" (Ap 4.214). This justification by faith alone stills God's anger and sets our minds at rest (Ap 4.224).

So Christ is our substitute (LW 22:167). He endures our punishment for us, "in our stead" (SD 3.15). He was "stricken, smitten by God" so that we might be set free (Isaiah 53:4). As a result our faith in his sacrifice restores us to "the Father's favor and grace" (LC 2.30). Without this faith the wrath of God pursues us (John 3:36). Over against this horror we have the Gospel. It announces that "the Son of God, Christ our Lord, himself assumed and bore the curse of the Law and expiated and paid for all our sins, that through him alone we re-enter the good graces of God" (SD 5.20).

So Christ is our joy (Philippians 4:4). But for the rest of our earthly lives there is tribulation and sorrow (John 16:20, 33). This makes us sober and somber because our joy is "mingled to such an extent with sadness that the sadness will be felt far more intensely than the joy." The reason is that...


our joy cannot be full until we see Christ's name hallowed perfectly, all false doctrine and sects abolished, all tyrants and persecutors of Christ's kingdom subdued; not until we see the will and designs of all godless people and the devil checked and God's will alone prevailing; not until the cares of the belly or hunger and thirst no longer assail us, sin no longer oppresses us, temptation no longer weakens the heart, and death no longer holds us captive. But this will not take place until the life to come... In this life... we have only a droplet of this joy... Progress is slow and cannot be perfect either in faith or in life. Again and again we fall into the mire and are weighed down with sadness and a heavy conscience, which prevent our joy from being perfect or make it so slight that we can hardly feel this incipient joy (LW 24:399-401).


Other Religions

Because of Christ's sacrifice, faith in him alone saves us from hell (Acts 4:12). Nothing else can release us from God's punishment. If we have Christ we have everything we need. If we have no faith in him we are defenseless before God's fury (LW 23:55).

All the other religions of the world know this and are critical of – if not infuriated by – this exclusivity. They may for a time cover-up their contempt for Christianity with respectful seminars, conferences and dialogues. But the disdain remains. Christians are not on the same wavelength as the other religions of the world – regardless of how politically incorrect it might be to say so.


Before Christ's coming, the world had more different kinds of idolatries than a dog has fleas.... Accordingly the Romans gathered together all the false gods from out of the whole world and built a church which they called the Pantheon, or the church of all gods.... When, however, the real God, Jesus Christ, came, they would not tolerate him.... Then the strife and discord began. Then all the gods went quite mad, together with their servants, the Romans, who slew the apostles and martyrs and all who dared call on the name of this Christ (LW 34:213).


This does not mean we should kill all who hate us. No, we should instead invite them to give up their vain ways, repent and believe in Christ (Acts 14:15; 17:30). The humiliation and contrition this brings to those who convert to Christianity – it should be noted – will nevertheless be tantamount to the pain of dying physically (Galatians 6:14).

Beneficial Baptism

The waters of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism wash away the stains of sin (1 Peter 3:21), but they will not save us unless they are combined with faith and good works (Mark 16:16; James 2:24). So the vows of baptism must be re-enacted daily (LC 4.65, 71). Otherwise baptism loses its benefit (LC 4.34). "Where faith is lacking," baptism remains "a mere unfruitful sign" (LC 4.73). If that disaster is not corrected through the renewal of faith and works, then baptism falls flat. Dying baptized – but without faith and good works – will do you no good. The fires of hell will still be waiting for you. Without faith and good works you have only been "baptized in vain" (LW 29:138). By being unfaithful in our use of Holy Baptism, we lose our inheritance (Heinecken 7). Baptism then is of no avail (LW 22:197).

If your faith is renewed, your Baptism becomes beneficial to you. So in that case you need not be baptized again. Your baptism remains valid even when you have neglected it (LC 4.53). That does not mean it will save you, however. It just means you do not have to be baptized all over again when your faith is revived. "Faith may waver," but the promises spoken in Holy Baptism "remain forever" (LW 40:260). If Baptism were a boat, its validity means it will not sink even when you abandon it and go overboard. You can always swim back to the boat, "climb aboard again and sail on in it as... before" (LC 4.82).

Just because we have been baptized does not mean we are safe for eternity. If we do not live in harmony with Baptism, we will end up poisoning it (LW 35:39). Living in harmony with baptism means every day "purging out whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new man may come forth" (LC 4.65).

Practicing individual confession and receiving personal Absolution from the pastor furthers the goals of Baptism (SC 4.16). For this blessing of penance we should be willing to "run more than a hundred miles" and demand that our pastor offer it to us (LC [6].30). Because we know that our impenitence can destroy Absolution, we want to be truly sorry for our sins. Penance helps us do just that.

It reminds us of the now-lost contingency in Absolution that once was part of our shared Christian lives. Once again we need to hear on the heels of the very declaration of forgiveness:


On the other hand, by the same authority, I declare unto the impenitent and unbelieving, that so long as they continue in their impenitence, God hath not for-given their sins, and will assuredly visit their iniquities upon them, if they turn not from their evil ways, and come to true repentance and faith in Christ, ere the day of grace be ended (Common Service Book 243; cf., Service Book and Hymnal 252).


We also will pursue this new, purified life in Baptism by receiving the Lord's Supper as our "daily food" (LC 5.24). But this sacrament will not be that as long as it continues to be the happy-go-lucky community celebration into which it has widely degenerated. The carnival tone of fun and frivolity must end. This "most venerable Sacrament" is offered for the forgiveness of sins, after all (SD 7.44). Getting back to "the entire external and visible action of the Supper as ordained by Christ" will help restore this sacrament's sobriety (SD 7.86).

Being contrite as we receive the Lord's Supper will also help. We must stop allowing the grace of the Sacrament to wash away all sorrow for sin. Remember that


worthy communicants... are those timid, perturbed Christians, weak in faith, who are heartily terrified because of their many and great sins, who consider themselves unworthy of this noble treasure and the benefits of Christ because of their great impurity, and who perceive their weakness in faith, deplore it, and heartily wish that they might serve God with a stronger and more cheerful faith and a purer obedience (SD 7.69).


With such an attitude, worship has a chance once again to manifest "reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29).

Terrifying Preaching

Our pulpits must also be purged of all sweet storytelling if God's Law and Gospel are to be proclaimed. Preaching must bring peace to people who have first been scared to death because of God's angry reaction to sin (Ap 12.29-30, 50-53). The sermon must terrify us. The preacher must rub our noses in our sin and let the thunder of God's wrath be heard. Without this terror and thunder the sermon is a dud. For the sad, deep truth is that "for some...sin is an awakening to damnation but for others an awakening for chastisement and repentance so that they are instructed and converted" (LW 6:371). This double contingency makes preaching dangerous indeed. It can damn the unbeliever just as swiftly as it can "quicken the terrified" (Ap 12.53).

Faithful sermons take a jab at the soul (LW 12:225). Just as Jesus was hated for doing this, so must the preacher be willing to suffer attacks (Luke 4:28; John 15:18). Every preacher must abandon the hope of "advancing Christ's cause on earth in peace and pleasantness" (LW 48:153).

Preaching is therefore neither story time nor classroom instruction. Instead it is "a wondrous, dangerous, and passionate affair." Every sermon is a battleground – "a battle for the souls of the people." It is "an apocalyptic event that sets the doors of heaven and hell in motion, a part of the actual continuing conflict between the Lord and Satan. It is the most dangerous task in the world." The sermon is therefore an intense, concentrated conversation of sorts, that "sets things in opposition to each other." The preacher must speak for both "God and Satan, sin and righteousness, life and death, and heaven and hell." The sermon is "conflict – of truth with error, God with Satan. There is the deepest kind of conflict within the reconciliation which God achieves through the gospel. It is a part of life that will not end this side of the grave. It makes...sermons vibrant, powerful, in touch with life as the hearer lives it" (Meuser 25, 49, 50).

So sermons are not refined, eloquent lectures (1 Corinthians 2:1). They are wilder than that. They are more like barroom yelling (LW 8:260, 255) because they are flat-footed and blunt – free of all entangling qualifications. Before ascending the pulpit, preachers should cry out: "I violently hate all equivocation" (LW 8:146). They should throw all caution to the wind (LW 21:9). No longer restrained, calm and sedate, they should cut loose, unleashing "torrential speech alive with prophetic fire" (Meuser 52, 57). With such preaching, no one would ever be left wondering how God's Word could be possibly thought to be living and cutting (Hebrews 4:12; LW 16:30; 23:229).

Church Music

Popular, secular music should not be used in church because it cannot carry the weight of God's Law and Gospel. Many Lutherans think Luther made use of secular music, so they feel justified in doing the same. But Luther never lamented, "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?" Neither did he use unrefined secular songs in his hymns. The historical evidence shows that he never promoted "congregational singing by catering to the tastes of the masses" (Herl 41). That would have been to make worship entertaining, and he was against that (LC I.96-97).

Neither should we suppose we can take secular music and change its words and then imagine it will work for worship. Singing Luther's "Out of the Depths I Cry to Thee," to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Fun, Fun, Fun 'Til Daddy Takes the T' Bird Away," would be a joke and a failure (Parton 35). Some music is simply wrong for sacred use. Thinking otherwise makes a travesty of the solemnity of worship (Isaiah 6:1-7). It unfaithfully mixes the holy with the common (Ezekiel 22:26). When this happens, "the hymns our fathers loved" are lost (Service Book and Hymnal, hymn 555; cf., "the sturdy hymns of old" in Lutheran Book of Worship, hymn 553). Alas, when they are needed so now!

Saccharine songs amount to little more than a "misguided hootenanny." Their "mild harmonies, comforting words, and sort of 'easy listening' sound" are the "musical equivalent of a warm bubble bath." They "ooze with an indecent narcissism." Most of all, these songs are sinister for the picture of God they peddle. They claim that "God is our little friend and very much under our control, on the end of a leash,... a dreamy, slow-moving divinity" (Daly 60-66). These songs know nothing of the God who killed nearly everybody in a horrifying flood (Genesis 7:21-22). Nor can they sing the praises of him who shook the earth when his Son was crucified (Matthew 27:51-53; cf., Lutheran Book of Worship, hymn 101). Against this music a book needs to be written entitled, Your God Is Too Nice! (Forde 70).

New groups like Lost and Found, on the other hand, rough up traditional hymns like "Crown Him With Many Crowns" (Sikkibalm, 1995), "God of Grace and God of Glory" (This, 1998), and "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Something, 2000). They speed up the tempos and maul the words. In their 1999 Christmas album they explain their philosophy:


We feel that a Christmas album ought to be raw, urgent, and honest, like the event it celebrates. Christ has entered the world! Our natural response is not everybody settle down, mellow out, and hand me my slippers. It is more like spontaneous cries of joy and song. If you're looking for fake strings and pretty voices, you have bought the wrong album, my friend.


If these musicians want hymns to foster serious discipleship, then I sympathize. But trashing our inherited musical treasures does not accomplish that. What we need is a contrite heart when we sing these great hymns. Then they will renew the faith. Trashing them says instead that the beliefs they represent are silly and stupid. Because of that, Lost and Found undercut their own agenda.

Using both hard and soft forms of rock music is church is wrong. This music trades on an eroticism that is completely out of place in church (LW 53:324). It makes people feel good. But proponents complain that rock music is tied up inextricably with the personal identity of many young people today, so to remove their music from church is tantamount to rejecting an entire generation (Hamilton 30). But such an idolatrous identification with popular music cannot be placated. Even the evil of an entire generation must be resisted (Mark 8:38). (A very helpful resource for understanding and combating this new church music is the 1999 book by Jay R. Howard and John M. Streck entitled Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music.)


The church also needs to make a psychological turnabout. Historic Christianity taught that self-love is a sin (Augustine 477). Now self-love has been declared healthy and virtuous. We need to reverse that trend and return to the original message that self-hate is virtuous and self-love is sinful.

Since sin began in the Garden of Eden we have become thoroughly wicked (Genesis 6:5), from head to toe (Isaiah 1:6). Because of that sinful rebellion, the image of God is "lost" in us, leaving us children of wrath (SD I.10-12; Ephesians 2:3). Consequently when we love ourselves we advance the very thing that is destroying us. If we are to leave our past and follow Christ (Romans 6:6), we must hate ourselves (Luke 14:26; John 12:25). This basic insight has been all but completely destroyed in mainline churches today.

But this does not mean we can do nothing good. Even though we are to deny ourselves, we still are expected to do good works (James 2:26). But whatever good we do after our Fall into sin must be attributed to God working within us (Galatians 2:20). On that account all the credit for our good deeds goes to God (1 Corinthians 10:31). This breeds a humility born of humiliation. It also gives us a confidence to never tire of spending long hours laboring in the vineyard, serving our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:4-5; Luke 10:2-3). V



Augustine, The City of God (Introduction by Thomas Merton) trans. Marcus Dods, New York: The Modern Library, 1950 (417).

Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959. Ap=Apology; LC=Large Catechism; SC=Small Catechism; SD=Solid Declaration.

Common Service Book of the Lutheran Church, Philadelphia: The United Lutheran Church in America, 1918.

Daly, Thomas, Why Catholics Can't Sing, New York: Crossroads, 1990.

Forde, Gerhard, "The God Who Kills" in Logia 7:69-70 (Reformation 1998).

Hamilton, Michael S., "The Triumph of the Praise Songs: How Guitars Beat Out the Organ in the Worship Wars" in Christianity Today 43:29-35 (July 12, 1999).

Hansen, Thorvald, Church Divided: Lutheranism Among the Danish Immigrants (Foreword by Martin E. Marty), Des Moines, Iowa: Grand View College, 1992.

Heinecken, Martin J., A Lutheran Style of Life, Philadelphia: LCA Division for Parish Services, 1977.

Herl, Joseph, "Ten Myths about Hymn Singing among Early Lutherans" in CrossAccent 8:37-47 (Summer 2000).

Keillor, Garrison, Wobegon Boy, New York: Viking, 1997.

Kierkegaard, Søren, For Self-Examination (published with Judge For Yourself!), trans. Howard and Edna Hong, Princeton University Press, 1990 (1851).

Luther, Martin, Luther's Works [LW], St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-1986.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978.

Meuser, Fred. W., Luther the Preacher, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1983.

Nichol, Todd W., All These Lutherans, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986.

Noll, Mark A., "The Lutheran Difference" in First Things Issue 20:31-40 (February 1992).

Parton, Craig, "The New White-Wine Pietists" in Logia 6:33-36 (Epiphany 1997).

Schmid, Heinrich, ed. The Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961 (1899).

Service Book and Hymnal, Minneapolis: Augsburg; Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1958.



RONALD F. MARSHALL is Pastor of First Lutheran Church of West Seattle in Seattle, Washington. He dedicates this essay to his parish in thanksgiving to Almighty God on the occasion of his 25th Anniversary of ordination.

"Somber Lutherans" was first published in a slightly shorter version in LUTHERAN FORUM, Spring 2004 (Easter), volume 38, number 1, pp. 41-45, and is reprinted here by permission.



Copyright © Feast of the Holy Trinity 2004

First Lutheran Church of West Seattle

4105 California Ave. SW

Seattle, WA 98116-4101





Deathly Evangelism

by Pastor Marshall 



Difficult, Dangerous & Dialectical


Fighting Boredom in the Church

By Pastor Marshall

May 2008


A common complaint in the modern, industrialized world is that the church is boring – and Christianity along with it. Church is thought to be too sober and predictable to be of any interest. All that happens there is humdrum – the incessant asking for money and the tired singing of old songs about loving God and the neighbor.


Panic in the Church

People therefore have quit going to church in droves.[i] And those who remain have panicked – fearing that the church will die if something drastic is not done – and quickly at that. So many stupid, desperate measures are being tried. The church, for instance, has become a comedy hour in some places – promising a good belly laugh for all those who venture out on Sunday mornings and into the pews.[ii] Other places have offered innovative and entertaining music – rock and rap for the new, younger generations, in whose hands the future of the church is erroneously believed to dwell.[iii] Still others have turned the church into a social agency, dabbling in a dizzying array of political campaigns.[iv] All of these strategies, and more like them, have whittled away at Sunday morning boredom. And in many cases they have even succeeded – but at too great a cost.


Rusty Christianity

All these efforts therefore are doomed because of the high price they pay for their successes. All of them send us down blind alleys – in spite of their many and varied successes. When we are convinced of this and dump them out-right, it doesn’t mean we’re left with boredom forever. No, there are other, better solutions. For from the beginning, the church has been dedicated to fight against boredom. And that struggle has been part of its essential identity. So from the beginning it has encouraged urgency, eagerness and zeal,[v] in its fight against mediocrity, idleness and lukewarmness.[vi] And these efforts have come by way of the word of God which is “sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12; Jeremiah 23:29). When this divine word cuts us up – as one might well imagine – boredom then is out the door.

The church, however, doesn’t always utilize this solution of its own. It instead caves in and betrays its essential identity, heeding instead something like Othello’s command to “keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.”[vii] By so doing, it welcomes boredom back in. And it does this without any struggle or shame. The avoidance of conflict, confrontation and contestation, is what’s behind all of this. We give up the cutting word because we’re always looking for the course of least resistance. And this results in deadening the church. Against this Martin Luther warned: “If the Gospel is not attacked it completely rusts and has no occasion or reason to make its power and influence manifest.”[viii] So when the church is boring it’s because a rusty Christianity has set in.



Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) called this sort of Christianity one that has lost its spring or tension:


Ah, there is so much in the ordinary course of life that will lull a person to sleep, teach him to say “peace and no danger.” Therefore we go to God’s house to be awakened from sleep and to be pulled out of the spell. But when in turn there is at times so much in God’s house that will lull us to sleep! Even that which in itself is awakening – thoughts, reflections, ideas – can completely lose meaning through the force of habit and monotony, just as a spring can lose the tension by which alone it really is what it is.[ix]


These spring-loaded ideas come from God’s holy word. They awaken us by cutting us – “piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow,” that the “thoughts and intentions of the heart” might be uncovered (Hebrews 4:12).[x]

This cutting is therefore deep and dangerous. And it’s what makes Christianity “dangerous and difficult” [periculosum et asperum] – both traits being essential features of its very nature (LW 12:217-219, 394-395; 51:205). This word thereby humbles us “to the utmost,” as Luther says.[xi] It destroys all knowledge “that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.” It “breaks through and wounds. It takes away every ground of trust and ascribes redemption solely to the blood of Christ; it pricks and wounds the soul” (LW 12:216, 225). This work is so central to Christianity that Revelation 1:16 has a sword coming right out of the mouth of the resurrected Lord Jesus.


By Way of Antithesis

This pricking and wounding, cutting and awakening, all happens by way of “contrast and antithesis [per contentionem et antithesin],” according to Luther (LW 33:287). This push and pull of ideas – or working out of salvation “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:13) – is what keeps Christianity lively. It’s what enables Christians to take up “the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). It’s what suppresses the boredom that’s always “couching at the door” of our churches (Genesis 4:7).

In order to be antithetical, we must always imagine the cynical, skeptical objections to any of our affirmations. So when we praise Christ, for instance, we must always remember those who want to say against us that “Jesus be cursed” (1 Corinthians 12:3). We can’t therefore forget this crucible of contest if Christianity is to be free of boredom. Christianity, after all, is a word of life that makes sense only in the struggle against death – and all death-dealing words and arguments against it. “In the absence of dying and death,” Luther writes, Christianity “can do nothing, and no one can become aware that it… is stronger than sin and death” (LW 30:126). So by sheltering Christianity from opposition, we hurt it more than help it.


Being Dialectical

Kierkegaard builds on Luther’s antitheses with his dialectical method. It seeks to present Christianity as composed of “infinite wrestling”:[xii]


To endeavor to work directly is to work or to endeavor directly in immediate connection with a factually given state of things. The dialectical method is the reverse: in working also to work against oneself,… which is “the earnestness,” like the pressure on the plow that determines the depth of the furrow, whereas the direct endeavor is a glossing-over, which is finished more rapidly and also is much, much more rewarding – that is, it is worldliness and homogeneity (KW 22:9).


Kierkegaard’s dialectical method therefore helps us dig down into any Christian claim, that it might rightly be seen as opposing us. This isn’t very rewarding in worldly terms. It slows everything down. It pits us against the world and ourselves – making us contrarian and heterogeneous. It gives Christianity a bite –making it salty, if not downright brackish (Matthew 5:13; LW 31:35):


The existential dialectic bears qua dialectic the stamp of its origin as a philosophical term in the dramatic dialogue. It is, namely, a mutual confrontation of opposites in their logically developed consequences.[xiii]


This confrontation of opposites throws us into a cauldron where we rightly belong –the “great battle in the human heart.”[xiv] This is the war (Romans 7:23) wherein spirit and flesh (Galatians 5:17) “struggle with one another… as long as we live” (LW 35:377). Ignoring this battle falsifies Christianity and leaves the church a silly and boring place. It misses the profound truth that Christians “thrive best” when opposed (LW 45:347). Blinded by our penchant for conflict-avoidance, we lose our way and sell our “birthright” (Genesis 25:29-34).


Learning From John 14:1-6

But how does this conquering of boredom in the church actually happen by way of God’s cutting word? One way to see this at work is in sermons on John 14.1-6. Over the years I’ve heard at least two boring sermons on this text – one by Pastor Prestbye ( Kent Lutheran Church , Kent , WA) on July 19, 2003, and another by Pastor Richardson (St. Malachi Anglican Church, Hillsborough , Northern Ireland ) on April 20, 2008. In both these cases, the dialectical method wasn’t used and Luther’s antitheses were missing. In both sermons this was done by letting one Christian claim, from this text, stand by itself – namely, that Christ will return to take us back with him into heaven (John 14:3). This is a great promise, but it’s boring when it stands alone – sailing past us unopposed by any contest, debate or challenges. It just stands there all alone, for us to bask in – and in this serene process, we get bored with it. It’s too placid. It doesn’t grip us. Because of this undialectical approach, we’re even led to believe that this claim is intrinsically unimportant because it isn’t worthy of any struggle. As Luther once put it, the devil is only interested in gobbling up the plump sheep – those positions and people that are full of God’s holy words (LW 30:135). The skinny ones – the unimportant ones – he leaves to languish on their own. By letting this text slide by uncontested, we leave the impression it’s a skinny one, when in fact it’s a fat one.

            A dialectical approach, however, turns this impression around. It butts this claim about Jesus taking us to heaven (John 14:3), with the other one, in the same passage, about having first to prepare a place for us in heaven before we can go (John 14:2). But notice how this butting of Bible verses against each other slows everything down. Matters become complicated. Some won’t like this detour – due to this Biblical complication – because they can’t follow it. They can’t see where it’s headed and so it seems a waste. Furthermore it won’t let them make short shrift of the Bible verses. But neither will the details in John 14:1-6 itself. Those details require of us to pause and ponder – whether we like it or not. They’re in control – not us (Isaiah 55:11). This is the first way in which this text turns against us – ruining the original sweetness of the claim that Jesus will return and quickly whisk us off to heaven – without any complications.


John 14:2 Versus John 14:3

But this is just the beginning. This abutting of the two claims also forces us to ask why heaven needs to be prepared in the first place – before Jesus can take us away. This question immediately puzzles us. Why does heaven need to be prepared before we can enter it? What’s wrong with it as it is? And what does it take to get it ready for us? How is it actually prepared for us? With these challenges and questions, we are all of a sudden thrown down into the depths of this text – fearing that we might be falling into some theological black hole – with no hope of escape. No wonder then that many turn tail and run – and precisely at this point. They can’t stand the heat, so they get out of the kitchen.

But if we put on the brakes and linger longer over this text, some light will surely dawn (John 1:5). Consider, for instance, that heaven needs preparing because it won’t allow the likes of us to enter into it. Now that is another strike against us – and it’s upsetting. This says we can’t get into heaven because we are unredeemed sinners and that makes us unwelcome because, as such, we offend God. So heaven isn’t ready for us because we aren’t ready for it. God’s light came into the world (John 8:12) and we “loved darkness” instead (John 3:19). So God is offended because we rejected his majestic, saving light (John 1.10-11, 3:32). Consequently his wrath settles in over us (John 3:36; 12:48). So rather than heaven opening up before us, all that we have is “the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29). This is because we have become “slaves to sin,” have made the devil our father, and are now “walking in darkness” (John 8:34, 44, 12). This closes heaven for us. All that’s left now is the “food which perishes,” which sucks life and vibrancy out of us (John 6:27, 53). We are without any “abundance” (John 10:10).

Given this horrible predicament, how shall we be restored? Are we but destined to hell, forever and ever? Well, not if somehow sin can be eradicated since that’s what’s keeping us out of heaven. Now precisely at this point we have hope, because this is exactly what Christ Jesus does, being the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, 36). And he eradicates sin by laying down his life as a sacrifice on the cross (John 10:11, 15, 17; 15:13). By so doing he moves the Father to mercy (John 10:17; 11:50; 14:6, 21; 18:14, 1 John 2:1-2; LW 51:277). He does this by being a sacrifice for sin himself (1 John 4:10). As such he is punished in our place. Whoever therefore believes in Jesus and entrusts their lives to his care and keeping, are blessed and may then – finally –  enter joyfully into heaven (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 11:25). So we cannot depend on our sinful selves to save us, but must actually “hate” ourselves in order to be saved (John 12:25; 15:5). This puts our salvation in God’s hands (John 6:44; 15:16). So even though we still sin, it is not held against us because Jesus’ sacrifice removes the need for sinners to be punished, since Jesus already has been punished in our place. That’s why Jesus says on the cross, at his last breath, “It is finished” (John 19:30; and my “Consummatum Est,” Logia, Reformation 2002). What is finished is everlasting punishment in hell for those who believe in him. Christ’s sacrifice has put an end to any need for that. Punishment is finished for believers – not ever to be feared again.

So when Jesus goes to prepare a place for us in heaven (John 14:2), he does what we can’t do for ourselves. By his death, and only by his death, he moves God to mercy and, as a result, he now welcomes all sinners who believe in his dear Son into heaven. These are the only ones he will take with him when he returns (John 14:3). Nothing else can help us in this way (John 5:44; 12:42-43).

Now these harrowing thoughts about sin and helplessness, punishment and wrath, suffering and sacrifice, must be butted up against John 14:3 if the church is to be saved from boredom. Popular music, entertainment fanfares and political campaigns can’t do any of this for us. Only the cutting word of Hebrews 4:12 can fire up the church and rid it of boredom – especially when John 14:1-6 is being preached.


Still Foolish & Foul

Once this has happened, however, all is not sweetness and light. Faith and jubilation can still be blocked. Critics – as has happened for generations – can still say Christianity is intellectually foolish (1 Corinthians 1:18) and morally foul (2 Corinthians 2:15-16) – even though it isn’t any longer boring. So ridding boredom from the church doesn’t, by itself, open up a smooth, clear path to belief as well. No, problems for faith persist. At this point, then, all we can say is blessed are those who take no offense (see Matthew 11:6; John 6:60-61 and my “Christ as a Sign of Contradiction,” Pro Ecclesia, Fall 1997, and “Our Serpent of Salvation,” Word & World, Fall 2001). Try though we may, the abrasiveness of Christianity remains, even after the boredom has been removed. So the abiding truth is this:


We… preach the foolishness of the Gospel, which reveals another righteousness, namely, that because of Christ, the propitiator, we are accounted righteous when we believe that for Christ’s sake God is gracious to us. We know how repulsive [abhorreat] this teaching is to the judgment of reason and law and that the teaching of the law about love is more plausible (BC 139).


[i] See Mike Regele, Death of the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), Thomas C. Reeves, The Empty Church (New York: The Free Press, 1996), and Leon J. Podles, The Church Impotent (Dallas, TX: Spence Publishing, 1999).

[ii] See “Heaven Help Us,” Newsweek, March 6, 1995.

[iii] See Jane Lampman, “Reinventing Church,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 2002, Robert Webber, “Let’s Put Worship into Worship and End Gospel Pep Rallies and Sunday Morning Variety Shows,” Christianity Today, February 17, 1984, and Charles Trueheart, “Welcome to the Next Church,” The Atlantic Monthly, August 1996: “No spires. No crosses. No robes. No clerical collars. No hard pews. No kneelers. No biblical gobbledygook. No prayerly rote. No fire, no brimstone. No pipe organs. No dreary eighteenth-century hymns. No forced solemnity. No Sunday finery. No collection plates. The list has asterisks and exceptions, but its meaning is clear. Centuries of European tradition and Christian habit are deliberately being abandoned, clearing the way for new, contemporary forms of worship and belonging” (37).

[iv] See Don Cupitt, Radicals and the Future of the Church (London: SCM, 1989), and Jack Roberts, Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church ( Louisville , KY : Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).

[v] See 2 Timothy 4:2; Acts 17:11; Hebrews 9:28; Romans 12:11.

[vi] See Matthew 26:40; 2 Thessalonians 3:11; Philippians 4:8; Revelation 3:16.

[vii] William Shakespeare, Othello (1604) I.ii.58-59.

[viii] Sermons of Martin Luther, 8 vols, ed. N. Lenker (1905, 1988), 5:300.

[ix] Kierkegaard’s Writings, 26 vols, (Princeton, 1978-2000) 17:165. All further citations to this work will be included in the text, listed as KW.

[x] Note well that this cutting is only spiritual and never physical. On the neurosis of physical cutting, see Steven Levenkron, Cutting: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Mutilation (New York: Norton, 1998) and Marilee Strong, A Bright Red Scream: Self-Mutilation and the Language of Pain (1999; London: Virago, 2005).

[xi] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 55 vols, (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955-1986) 3:348. All further citations to this work will be included in the text, listed as LW.

[xii] Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals & Papers, 7 vols, (Indiana University Press, 1967-1978) §775.

[xiii] David F. Swenson, Something About Kierkegaard (1945; Mercer University Press, 1983) p. 117. Note also that this method breeds “unrest” and “constant striving” (118). Furthermore, in order “to keep the ardor of the spirit alive, the dialectic must actively discover the precarious and the uncertain” (131-132).

[xiv] The Book of Concord : The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (1580) ed. T. Tappert (Fortress, 1959) p. 154. All further citations to this work will be included in the text, listed as BC. See also my A Christian Battle Manual (2005) in which I explicate some 83 offensive maneuvers for the church derived from The Book of Judges, and “Somber Lutherans,” Lutheran Forum, Spring 2004.





Truth & Beauty


1 Timothy 3:15 & Psalm 50:2


By Pastor Marshall

The church is far more than a human organization. It’s also the very mysterious and holy body of Christ Jesus himself (Colossians 1:24). And since Christ is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), the church must stand for that same truth in its life and ministry. No wonder then that 1 Timothy 3:15 says it is the “pillar and bulwark of truth.” So all the words that the church uses in its prayers, hymns, readings, sermons, architecture, symbols, instruction, counseling, governing documents, and advertising – should correspond to the words in Holy Scriptures. Otherwise the church is nothing but the “devil’s whore,” as Luther liked to say (Luther’s Works 22:450).

However, just getting all the words right won’t settle all our problems. Those words are necessary, but not sufficient. With Psalm 50:2 we must also add that the church needs “the perfection of beauty,” for God to shine forth. For the truth of Holy Scriptures will not shine forth in an ugly church. Sooner or later, ecclesiastical ugliness will do them in. Ugliness is that potent. And so beauty is that important.

But we quickly grow weary over all of this. For beauty, we confess, is only in the eye of the beholder – quoting unwittingly Margaret Hungerford’s novel, Molly Bawn (1878). And so we cannot tell someone what is beautiful, since there are no shared standards on what makes something beautiful. That’s why we say beauty’s in the eye of the beholder – for it looks differently to each one of us. That means I cannot police you and tell you that your church is ugly and what you need to do to make it look better. That’s because beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.

But all of this business about taste isn't quite right! That's because there are some common standards for beauty – that reach beyond any particular artistic style [Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics (1958) pp. 527-530]. So we don’t have to decide whether gothic or modern architecture is the more beautiful style, for instance. There actually are common standards between these two styles – and for that matter, all the others as well. And they are, more or less, [a] coordination (which avoids visual chaos), [b] complexity (which avoids dullness), [c] precision (which avoid sloppiness) and [d] heartfelt emotion (which avoids detachment).

All four of these are needed to make any artistic style beautiful. Unfortunately in many, if not most American churches, these standards are not met and ugliness takes over. And since Martin E. Marty is right, that “taste is a part of the experience of God, so that the two, taste and religion, are inextricably wed” [“The Problem of Taste in TV Christianity,” The Dial: KCTS 9 (December 1981) p. 14], these ugly churches aren’t faithful to the Holy Scriptures either, regardless of how many words they might have right.

Just take our church, First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, for a minute. I would say that we are, more or less, faithful to God’s Word. But what if that remained but our church lost it’s beauty? What then? Could those strong words carry the day if our building were a dilapidated shack with mismatched materials, having been shoddily constructed, with no coordinated colors, no historic symbols, with large, clear plastic windows, the random mixture of Soft Rock, Rap and Hillbilly music pulsating through the air, and the strong, persistent smell of gasoline and tire-rubber everywhere? I think not. We would be so distracted by this ugliness that care for the words would finally fade away. And furthermore, minute care for each particular word (LW 44:93) would seem strangely out of place in such an ugly environment where sloppiness, incoherence, dullness and detachment have won the day. So why care about doctrinal, verbal details?

Now what this means for us is this: We can only take proper care of the church by working for both the right words and the right appearances – together, at the same time. That’s because they run in tandem or they both are lost.

So we will have to pursue both truth and beauty at the same time because beauty can’t produce Christian truth all by itself. To see what I mean, just think of the stunning beauty of a Muslim mosque, which does not only stir clear of Christianity but at times oppose it. So beauty cannot by itself wash away all aberrant theology. But neither can righteous theology – with all of its right words – turn an ugly church into a beautiful one. The sloppiness, chaos, dullness and detachment of ugly churches doesn’t just cling to the walls of the buildings. Those bad qualities also infect the words in the church and eventually keep it from being the bulwark of truth. That’s what happens when the perfection of beauty does not shine forth God in the congregation of the faithful. So truth needs beauty, and beauty needs the truth, if the church is to abide in truth and splendor. Otherwise all that we will have are Luther’s sober words that “there is almost nothing more unlike the church than the church itself” (LW 27:397)!

Pray then that both truth and beauty abide in the body of Christ – which can only be itself by way of such truth and beauty. Otherwise we’ll all be intoning Lamentations 2:1, 7, 13, 15:

How the Lord in his anger

has set the daughter of Zion

under a cloud!....

The Lord has scorned his altar,

disowned his sanctuary;

he has delivered into the

hand of the enemy

the walls of her palaces....

What can I liken to you, that I

may comfort you,

O daughter of Zion?

For vast as the sea is your ruin;

who can restore you?....

All who pass along the way...

hiss and wag their heads [saying];

“Is this the city which was called

the perfection of beauty,

the joy of all the earth?”

(reprinted from The Messenger, June 2009, revised 6-2-2013.)



Wayward and Harmful Teaching


Sizing Up the Lutheran Women Today Bible Study

By Pastor Marshall        

ELCA magazine, Lutheran Women Today, each year provides a monthly Bible study. For 2006-2007 it’s on suffering and is written by Terry and Faith Fretheim. There are so many bad mistakes in it that it deserves comment so that a warning (see 1 Timothy 1.19) may be sounded (see 1 Corinthians 14.8; 2 Peter 2.1). Copies of this LWT Bible study are available through the church office if you haven’t seen it.

            The September 2006 Lesson. It begins saying “suffering is a fact of life” – even though it isn’t “evenly distributed among people.” But this platitude gets us off on the wrong foot. Suffering rather comes from being kicked out of paradise (see Genesis 3.23-24). We weren’t made to suffer and die (Genesis 3.3, 19, 22; 5.5). So when creation is restored at the end (Romans 8.22-23), all suffering and death will be gone (1 Corinthians 15.26; Hebrews 2.14; Revelation 21.4). All of these profound truths are missing from or denied by this study. They are replaced by the banality that suffering’s all around us. If Martin Luther had been followed on this matter (e.g. Luther’s Works 13.92-94), none of these mistakes would have been made.

            Next it rules out that all suffering is caused by sin. This is because the abused and poor do nothing to deserve their pain. But this is a wooden view of sin – tied unjustifiably to specific infractions. The Bible knows of a deeper sin that covers everyone. On this deeper view all have gone astray (Isaiah 53.6) and none is righteous (Romans 3.10, 23). Everyone therefore deserves punishment (Luke 13.2-3) – young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor alike. Sinners shouldn’t be surprised when they suffer.

            This study also rules out God’s absence as a cause for suffering. It says God is present in every situation of life. But this unjustifiably denies God’s fierce withdrawal (Ezekiel 8.6; Romans 1.24; 2 Thessalonians 1.9). It also defies Mary’s words in John 11.23, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

            The October 2006 Lesson. It begins saying that in our relationship to God we have something “important to do and say, the results of which make a difference to God.” But God isn’t tied to our contributions. Our life with him isn’t always tied to a conditional relationship as in the covenant with Moses (see Leviticus 26.1-46). This is not the case with Noah (see Genesis 8.21) nor with predestination (Romans 9.16-18). And even when a contribution is noted, we’re told it counts for nothing (1 Corinthians 3.7)! Before God we are but a mist (Psalm 39.5; 103.14); we are nothing (2 Corinthians 12.11; James 4.14).

            It also supposes that Psalm 8.5 is saying that we are a little lower than God and full of honor and glory. But Hebrews 2.5-9 says this applies to Jesus. He’s the one filled with glory and honor and who was a little lower than God because he emptied himself to suffer and die for the sins of the world (Philippians 2.7; Romans 8.3; 2 Corinthians 5.21). So this study denies that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel. It denies that we should read the Old Testament in light of the New Testament. If it had let the New Testament lead the way, it would’ve followed Hebrews 2 in explaining Psalm 8. It would’ve celebrated that the New Testament is our “guide and instructor” for the entire Bible (LW 35.123). That this study hasn’t is reason to question it seriously.

               This study also says we’re free to say new things about God because “God outdistances all our language, and none of our images for God is fully adequate.” But this study doesn’t follow this principle far enough. They should’ve said the same for our moral and metaphysical principles too. They should’ve said God is beyond them too. But the Fretheims lost their nerve at the key point. They would rather stand in judgment over the morality and ontology of the God of the Bible. Pray that the Fretheims may one day courageously give up their cherished liberal, enlightened moral and metaphysical principles too. May they also grow to love the Bible’s language too.

               This study also says God shares power with us knowing full well we may make poor use of it. But God goes on anyway – even to the point of weakening himself by so doing. This study then denies that “whatever God wills,” he gets. It says “God does not always get” what he wants. But this misunderstands our shared power and the misuse of it. None of that goes against God’s will. When we fail it’s because he allowed it to happen. So too with those times when we thwart God’s plans. The truth is that “all power belongs to God” (Psalm 62.11) and that he does “whatever he pleases” (Psalm 115.3). Whatever we manage to do is not by the power of our own arm (Deuteronomy 8.17)! So if all hell breaks loose on earth it is because God willed it (Revelation 12.12; 1 John 5.19). This study emphatically dismisses the power God has in the Bible!

               The November 2006 Lesson. It begins saying that “God is, of course, at work for good in all suffering, whatever the reason.” But this is not so. It only is so for those who believe “in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8.28, 39). For those outside the household of faith there is sheer torment awaiting (Luke 16.23, 28). This “torture” is so bad, people suffering from of it will wish to die to escape it, but won’t be allowed to (Revelation 9.5-6). This burning misery is unending (Matthew 3.12; Mark 9.48). This is terrible even though just. This is nothing but wrath (John 3.36; Romans 2.5)! It’s easy to see why the Fretheims would skip this testimony – especially if they have loved ones they believe are in jeopardy. But such partiality sadly has no place in these divine matters (Acts 10.34)! God’s tough word stands even if we are offended by it!

            Next it says the world is progressing and developing. If this were not so, it would be “a monotonous cycle of inevitability, a dull-as-dishwater world.” But that is just what Ecclesiastes 1.2-10 says it is! These famous verses are unexplainably omitted from this study. They must be just too disappointing for our nature-loving authors. They say earthquakes and the like are signs of “the continued formation of the planet.” Numbers 16.30-35, however, see them to be God’s attacks on us – as does Ezekiel 14.21-23 with its “four sore acts of judgment.” Theirs is a Pollyanna view of creation!

(reprinted from The Messenger, November 2006)



            The December 2006 Lesson. It begins saying “suffering as a consequence of our sin does not happen because God pulls some kind of trigger when someone sins. Rather…. God sees to the connection between sin and consequence…. God does not produce… a penalty and impose it on the situation.” So we suffer from our sins because of the moral order of life – not because God is punishing us.

            But this theory denies too much of the Bible to be true. In Numbers 16.30-32, God does “something new” and causes an earthquake to swallow up the wicked. That earthquake doesn’t follow from their sin like emphysema does from smoking. And so for the Flood. Because of their violence, God drowns humans worldwide in a flood – but the waters of the flood aren’t triggered by their violence (Genesis 6.11; 7.21). Wars, maybe, would have been intrinsically linked to their sin of violence, but God instead chose to kill them by drowning.

            So why does this study put forth such an unbiblical idea? Could it be because it rejects the teaching that it’s a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10.31)? Can it not stomach Matthew 10.28 that God not only can kill us but also send us to hell?

            The January/February 2007 Lesson. It ends saying that in the book of Job we learn that “religion will outlast any eventuality” if we would only “serve God without thought of the carrot or the stick.” And this is possible if we simply deny and reject “the principle of reward and punishment.”

            But this isn’t what the book of Job teaches! Rejecting the principle of reward and punishment can only come from blind guides (Matthew 23.16)!

            Job tells us the truth. He says that if we are “false to God above,” then we deserve to be “punished by the judges” (Job 31.28). Job doesn’t deny this system of retribution, or reward and punishment, as this study shamefully claims. Job simply denies that he’s been false to God. “I am… a just and blameless man,” he insists (Job 12.4).

            And so Job follows Exodus 20.5-6 which says that God punishes those who hate him, but loves those who obey him. How could this study have missed this chestnut? And John 5.29 follows Job’s example saying, “those who have done good come forth to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” And Romans 2.6-8 follows suit saying, “to those who by patience and well-doing seek for glory, God will give eternal life; but to those who obey wickedness, there will be fury and wrath.” No reward and punishment? What a crazy Bible study! These verses show how far off base this study actually is!

            This study also claims that “Job’s lament-full reactions were an appropriate way for him to respond” to his severe suffering and torment. But this too is a silly idea. If that were the case, then why does Job repent at the end? What is he sorry for if not his whining? “I have uttered what I did not understand,” he confesses, “therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42.3, 6)! But all this study can say is there’s a scholarly dispute over Job’s remorse and that, at the most, he “sounds as if” he’s repenting! Is this why God has withheld the truth of his Word from the scholars, from the “wise and understanding” (Matthew 11.25)? So once again we see that all this LWT study provides is the work of blind guides (Matthew 23.16)!

            So the judgment on Job is a split decision. Martin Luther (1483-1546) knew this a long time ago – something that this study has shamefully shirked. And it’s supposed to be a Lutheran study? In the book of Job, Luther writes, “God decides that Job, by speaking against God in his suffering, has spoken wrongly, but that in contending against his friends about his innocence before the suffering came, Job has spoken the truth” (Luther’s Works 35:252). So Luther isn’t baffled over why Job repents at the end. It is because he sinfully spoke against God after his suffering began.

            All this study can say about Job’s wrongful speech is that it authorizes us – can you believe it? – to “question… even God” when we have to suffer what we don’t like! But how can we question God whose ways are so far superior to ours (Isaiah 55.9)!? What basis could we possibly have for correcting God? Nowhere in this study is this obvious concern addressed.

            And finally this study also says that the “testing of Job’s faithfulness… is not for Job’s sake…. Job is simply a pawn in a heavenly dispute.” Really? Then why does Job say that when God “has tried me, I shall come forth like gold” (Job 23.10)? Isn’t this because the same truth in Romans 5.3-4 is evident here, namely, that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance character”? No wonder, then, that Christians praise Job for his “steadfastness” (James 5.11) – a verse missing from this study. (Can you imagine why a putatively Christian Bible study wouldn’t include this verse?)

(reprinted from The Messenger, February 2007)


            The March 2007 Lesson. It begins saying that one of the reasons we may think God isn’t present in our lives is because we think of him as a king and “royalty tend to live in remote palaces, removed from ordinary people’s daily life.” Rather than thinking of God as our king we should instead think of him as medicine “working on the body from the inside.” Or we should think of God as a seamstress who “puts all the patches of the quilt that is you and me together.” However there’s a big problem with this. And that is that the Bible says God is our king! “The Lord reigns,” it declares, “let the people tremble!... Mighty King,… you have established justice…. You were a forgiving God to the people, but an avenger of their wrongdoings” (Psalm 99). And even Christ reigns (Acts 17.7; 1 Corinthians 15.25) in his very own kingdom (Colossians 1.13). So we call him “King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Timothy 6.15; Revelation 17.14; 19.16)! But such a regal God is apparently too demanding for this study. They prefer a wimp – a bottle of pills or a thin darning needle – to the One whose voice thunders “like the sound of many waters,” and from whose mouth issues forth “a sharp two-edged sword” (Revelation 1.15-16). But that’s what the Bible says, not the other!

            Next this study says that God does not first enter “into time and history” in Jesus Christ. No, it says, for the Old Testament is “all about the pre-Jesus presence of God.” This is an unbelievable statement coming from a Christian Bible study! There’s no such thing as a “pre-Jesus presence of God” for the church! When would that have been? At creation? No, that couldn’t be, for in Jesus Christ “all things were created, in heaven and one earth” (Colossians 1.16; John 1.3). This is the meaning of the Holy Trinity, one God in three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Searching for some sort of pre-Jesus presence of God is a clear dead-end. The Biblical God is by nature Trinitarian, period. That’s the Christian creed. This study also says that without Christ one may still be able to receive the “unconditional love” of God. But we know that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17). Without him the wrath of God is all we have coming. Otherwise Jesus isn’t the only savior (1 Timothy 2.5). Jews may not read the Bible this way, but Christians surely must.

            Next this study claims that “God is at home in this world, not off in some special God world.” But that is too cozy. God fights for truth in this world (Nehemiah 4.20; 1 John 3.8), but to say he’s at home here is to domesticate the Almighty Lord (Revelation 1.8). The world after all is a suspect place. It’s in the power of the evil one (1 John 5.19; Luke 4.5). The devil even is “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4.4). So friendship with the world is “enmity with God” (James 4.4; Romans 12.2). No wonder, then, that we must not “love the world” (1 John 2.15). Thank God, then, that this world is “passing away” (1 Corinthians 7.31; 1 John 2.17). Therefore it is right that we die “to the world” (Galatians 6.14; 1 John 5.4). All these truths are missing from this study.

            Next it says “we can resist God’s work in our lives, and so things may go… terribly wrong,” so much so, in fact, that they “fly in the face of the will of God,” thereby stopping it from happening. (Next month this study will flatly say that we can so obstruct God’s will “that it does not get done”!) In the face of this failure, all God can do is let his tears be “the first to flow.” But Psalm 115.3 says, “God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.” So if we resist God’s will, it is because he lets it happen. “Not one sparrow,” after all, “will fall to the ground without your Father’s will” (Matthew 10.29). This study is clearly barking up the wrong tree by denying God’s all-powerful will!

            This study also says that God’s wrath can and will burn hot against those who “forget the underprivileged.” But what about those who forsake God for idols? When God killed Herod (Acts 12.21-23) is wasn’t because he rejected the poor. It was because he feigned the voice of a god and tried to hog the true God’s glory. Such punishment of blasphemy is missing from this study. Is that because it cuts too close to the bone? Furthermore the declared divine wrath is later mitigated in this study. Later it says that “God is present even in the most heinous of situations, struggling to transform those moments into good.” But couldn’t he also be there to cause these situations to punish us and then leave it at that? Isn’t that just what he in fact did to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.1-11? Isn’t that even what Jesus will do with the chaff (Matthew 3.12)?

            The April 2007 Lesson. This study repeats the same mistakes made in the previous month regarding the kingship of God and his unassailable power and will. But it goes on to say that in prayer “God is not the only one with something important to say.” But that is surprising given that we are always to pray to God that his will, not ours, be done (Matthew 6.10; 26.39). It’s also odd because we don’t know how to pray as we should, and so God knows what we need before we even ask for it (Matthew 6.8; Romans 8.26-27; Ephesians 3.20). That makes what we have to say in prayer pretty paltry indeed. Why does this study skip over these well-know verses? But it insists that in prayer “God experiences the wonder that is you.” A wonderful you? Come on! How are we then part of that “evil and adulterous generations” that deserves nothing but the sign of Jonah (Matthew 12.39)? This study says our prayers can give God “new ingredients with which to work,” such as “insights” into our situation. But it then self-contradictorily takes this back by saying that these matters “are not new to God,” but still “important” for him. Well in just what way? This simply doesn’t add up.

            This study also says that we “have the power to make God less welcome” in our lives, by giving him “less room in which to work.” But it also says that “God is ever unsurpassed in creating… openings in our lives, even when the doors seem to be closed.” One thinks of the conversion of Paul in Acts 9.1-22, for instance. So in what way, then, is there less room in our lives if God gets what he wants by dint of his miraculous ingenuity? This also doesn’t add up.

            Finally this study says that the people of God “are not in the hands of an iron fate or a predetermined order.” It is not at all clear how this claim fits with Romans 8.29 that “those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” And the same can be said for Ephesians 1.5 that God “destined us in love to be his children through Jesus Christ, according to his will.” These verses affirm predestination, contrary to what this study says! So Romans 9.16-18 says that these matters don’t “depend… upon our will or exertion,” but only upon God’s mercy or wrath. This study seem to be afraid to discuss these verses along with their cognates. Therefore – sad to say – we once again see light turning into darkness (Luke 11.35) in this study.

(reprinted from The Messenger, April 2007)

         The May 2007 Lesson. It begins saying that Christian suffering can be chosen, good and fulfilling [or “rewarding,” Deuteronomy 15.10], rather than just a consequence of sin and creaturely limitations. In this case we suffer because of our “daily willingness, even eagerness, to enter into the suffering of others” in order to help them. In this case we suffer on purpose because that’s what it takes to help the needy. Our suffering comes in our sacrificing of our time and wealth to feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked, heal the sick and rescue the abused. But this admonition is left unexplored in this study, and so it isn’t of much help.

         For instance, it just asks, without any discussion, if we “give liberally and ungrudgingly every time” we’re panhandled. Martin Luther, however, provides help with this matter – help that’s missing from this Lutheran Bible study. Inspired by 2 Thessalonians 3.10, Luther says the flesh of our neighbor must be nurtured, but only in such a way that it’s not permitted to “become wanton” – just as with our own flesh. It too must be curbed. So we must “not approve of the hoboes who run hither and yon and suck us dry and go after our property without lifting a finger.” Instead we should help only those who try their best to “bear the burden of work” (Luther’s Works 17.287). This is a fuller analysis of our obligation to the poor which also reflects the “whole counsel” of the Holy Scriptures (Acts 20.27) – something this study doesn’t come close to doing.

         Then there’s also the matter of being rewarded for our benevolent labors. Nothing is said in this study on how this can boomerang on us. It just quotes Deuteronomy 15.10 regarding blessings for our good deeds and leaves the matter hanging. But this verse raises the long-standing fear over works righteousness (Romans 3.21-26). This, you will surely remember, is when we help out to feather our own nests – or at least in order to feel better about ourselves. This danger is not discussed in this lesson, so nothing is said on how to fight against it either. Nevertheless, a place to begin would be to contemplate Philippians 2.3 about others being better than ourselves, and Luke 14.26 about hating ourselves. These verses are of course missing from this study.

         Next it says we also suffer for the message we bring from God. But again this is left unexplored. Why are we hated for bringing God’s good word? Have we presented it the wrong way or is it inherently offensive? If the latter is the case, how is it so? The short answer to this is that God’s good word includes the condemnation of what we’re naturally inclined to do and enjoy (Romans 13. 14, 11.22). Having those dreams crushed enrages us, for we love the darkness (John 3.19). So to declare God’s condemnations will put us where Elijah (1 Kings 19.1-33), Amos (7.12-13), Jeremiah (38.6), Jesus (Mark 15.9-15), Stephen (Acts 6.13, 7.58) and Paul (Acts 21.30-34) were – that is, in a terrible mess.

         Another example of this suffering is in Isaiah. This includes the famous verses from Isaiah 53 about the suffering servant of the Lord. This study says that “Christians often associate the suffering servant with Jesus (see Matthew 8:17; Acts 8:32-33; 1 Peter 2:24-25).” But not always. One could also draw a connection to “an unknown prophet, the people of Israel , a faithful remnant, or all of the above.” For Lutherans, however, this selectivity and ambiguity won’t work. Those verses from Matthew, Acts and 1 Peter are non-negotiable! For indeed, every Good Friday we read Isaiah 53 and are emphatic that it’s about Jesus. There’s no ambiguity there! And Luther argued the same in his 1544 treatise on Isaiah 53 (see Marc Lienhard, Luther: Witness to Jesus Christ, 1982). God punished Jesus in our place because Isaiah 53 says so. The church leans on these verses for its declaration that Christ is our “substitute” (LW 22:167, “Ich trit an deine stat”). That’s why Isaiah is called the fifth evangelist (see John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity, 1996). We can’t be vague about this without making “a shipwreck” of our faith (1 Timothy 1.19).

            As a result of this obfuscation, this study also skirts why Jesus had to suffer for our sins. He did so to pay for then, the Scriptures say. By so doing Jesus shielded us from the wrath of God (John 3.36; Romans 5.9). And so Luther rightly asks, “Why else did he die”? (LW 52:253) – implying that there’s no other adequate explanation. This study notes the importance of what “Jesus’… death is all about,” but never says what that actually is. As Lutherans are supposed to confess, “Only Christ, the mediator, can be pitted against God’s wrath and judgment” [The Book of Concord, ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 136]. This standard teaching is completely missing from this study. Why do you suppose that is? And why do you suppose it’s been excluded in such a coy fashion?

            Next this study says that suffering is God’s “most fundamental” and “chief way” to exercise his power in the world. This means God doesn’t primarily use “coercive power” – which would be to force things through on his own, in one fell swoop. But this is a silly position to hold since God does force things through – and significant things at that! – and he does so all on his own! He killed Herod all by himself (Acts 12.23). He didn’t need one of us to drive a spike through his head as he did with Sisera (Judges 4.21). And God also killed Ananias and Sapphira all by himself (Acts 5.3-10). He brought light into the world all by himself (Genesis 1.3). He caused the rain to flood the earth all by himself (Genesis 7.4). He raised Jesus from the dead all by himself (2 Corinthians 4.14). He calmed the sea all by himself (Mark 4.39). And he gives us faith all by himself (1 Corinthians 3.5-7; Ephesians 2.8; Romans 9.16 – Romans 10.14-17 notwithstanding!). To assert the contrary – that God needs us to get things done in the world through some slow, weak, painful means (contra Psalm 50.12-13) – is to fall off a theological cliff into the never-never land of secular modernity!

            This study also says that God never “becomes bitter, callous, or burned out in finding a way into the future,…. His saving will never wavers.” But this violates Romans 1.24 where God simply “gives up” on the wicked. It also violates Matthew 25.41 where God curses the wicked with eternal fire. And it violates 2 Thessalonians 1.9 where the wicked are excluded from God’s presence forever. This study ignores these alarming Bible verses because, in its foolishness, it only wants a watered down God to exist. Shame on it for this blasphemy! Can you believe it says that suffering and evil never have “the last word about our lives”?! How about “wrath and fury” in Romans 2.8? How about “this place of torment” in Luke 16.28? Or “the door was shut” in Matthew 25.10? Or the weeping and gnashing of teeth in “the outer darkness” of Matthew 25.30? What about these Bible verses? Are they chopped liver?

            And so this study ends as it began – in utter darkness. Lord have mercy on the ELCA for promoting and celebrating a study that peddles and tampers with God’s Word (2 Corinthians 2.17, 4.2). Pray for the repentance of its authors and all us who have swallowed it hook, line and sinker! Yes, O Lord, in your goodness, have mercy on us all.

(reprinted from The Messenger, May 2007)




Waiting for Christ


Why Belief in Him Matters

By Pastor Marshall


(inspired by a couple of actual conversations)


[1]   Xavier: Can you tell me about Christianity and why it matters? I know almost nothing about it.

Yossarian: Yes I can. It has to do with the future.

[2]   X: What do you mean?

        Y: Well, do you think it’s open or closed? That is, are you free to plan to do whatever you want to do in the days ahead?

[3]   X: If you’re talking about my summer vacation, yes, I am.

        Y: Okay, but isn’t even that choice limited?

[4]   X: Well, I suppose so. I can’t spend a million dollars on it, if that’s what you mean. But even then it’s still open. Within my means I still can go wherever I want.

        Y: Yes, true. But aren’t there still other even weirder limitations on your summer vacation plans – weirder than how much money you can spend?

[5]   X: Like what?

        Y: Well, you can’t travel to the South during the Civil War in the summer of 1862, for instance. Nor can you travel at the same time to two unconnected countries, or visit another galaxy.

[6]   X: Oh, come on! That’s ridiculous.

        Y: True. But I said they were weird. Even so what they show is that you also live with other, hidden limitations on your future.

[7]   X: I suppose, if you put it that way.

        Y: Now do you think there are any other hidden ones that matter even more that these albeit silly ones?

[8]   X: I don’t know. Like what?

        Y: Well, are there any moral ones, for instance?

[9]   X: Like what? What would a moral limitation on my future be?

        Y: Well, a forced option would be one.

[10] X: What’s that?

        Y: It would be a situation where you’re in a pickle and have no good choices. Can the future force something like that on you? Can it limit you in that way?

[11] X: I suppose it could. Would that be like an unwanted pregnancy?

        Y: Yes, I think so. So would being physically attacked. In that case you might feel forced to injure or even kill the person assaulting you in order to save yourself.

[12] X: Yes, I see. But what’s your point? Where’s this leading?

        Y: Well, are there even bigger moral limitations on you than these awful cases?

[13] X: Well, like what?

        Y: Well, how about if there will be a forced evaluation of you in the future?

[14] X: You mean like a job evaluation, or something?

        Y: Yes, like that, but bigger.

[15] X: You mean like an obituary in the newspapers?

        Y: Yes! That’s a good example. So is something like that forced on you by the future? Will you be sized-up whether you like it or not? Is there something like that afoot in the future for you?

[16] X: Well, I suppose. I’ll probably be evaluated even if no one writes an obituary for me in the papers. People will talk about me after I’m dead. They’ll say whatever they want, whether I like it or not. I’ll have no control over that.

        Y: That’s right. There won’t be anything you can do about it. But now there’s an even more important question to ask.

[17] X: What’s that?

        Y: Well, is there an even more serious moral evaluation than that awaiting you in the future – one more important than what you’ll get from your acquaintances and friends?

[18] X: Well, I suppose there could be. But what do you mean by more serious?

        Y: Well, one that is thorough and truly unavoidable. One that would make a hit-and-miss newspaper obit look silly.

[19] X: You mean one that I most certainly couldn’t escape and that would include every last thing about me?

        Y: Yes, that’s it. Good again!

[20] X: Well I don’t know. There might be one, I suppose. But I doubt it because I don’t think there’s anyone around to write such an evaluation. Who, after all, would know me that well and also be able to see to it that it’s written?

        Y: Precisely. But what if such a judge did exist? Then what?

[21] X: Well, I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.

        Y: Wouldn’t you at least want to know about the terms of such an evaluation if there could at least hypothetically be one like this?

[22] X: Well, maybe, but not necessarily. Why should I care anyway, if I’m dead and gone when this grand obituary is written of me?

        Y: Again it has to do with the terms. What if they were to include extension, bifurcation and rigor, as well as finality and intensity? What then? Would you then want to know more about it?

[23] X: I don’t know, it would all depend on what those mean. And what do they mean?

        Y: By extension I mean your life will extend on into the evaluation itself. So you’ll live past your death to witness your own overall evaluation. That’s some version of the right to face your accuser. Or maybe more like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843).

[24] X: That seems impossible – a mere fantasy. But if it were true, it would be quite disconcerting.

        Y: I agree. And by bifurcation I mean that your assessment will only go either to your advantage or disadvantage – with no guarantees and no middle ground.

[25] X: That makes it even worse.

        Y: Right again. And by rigor I mean the standards for judging you will be so high that it’ll be virtually impossible to get a good score.

[26] X: Unbelievable.

        Y: I know. And by finality I mean you can’t appeal the judgment. No other judges are involved.

No one else can help you.

[27] X: Pretty hard-nosed.

        Y: Yes, tell me about it! And by intensity I mean the stakes are very high either way. If you score well you’ll enjoy everlasting bliss. But if you don’t, the misery will be over the top.

[28] X: Sounds like a horror movie!

        Y: Yes and even worse because it’ll never end! Now if these are indeed the terms, then you’d probably want to know about what you’ve rightly called your grand obituary. Right?

[29] X: Oh my goodness, yes!

        Y: Also, wouldn’t you think it would be a good idea to see to it that you get a good score?

[30] X: Oh, yes, for sure, if what you’ve said is true.

        Y: Yes, and that’s where Christianity comes in.

[31] X: How so?

        Y: Christianity teaches about a man named Jesus Christ who lived about 2000 years ago in Israel . He lived to make sure you get a good evaluation.

[32] X: How does he do that?

        Y: Well, if we believe in him and entrust our lives to him now, then we’ll be kept safe after we die and face our judgment.

[33] X: What’s there to believe in about him?

        Y: In the Bible it says he is the one who judges us all (John 5:22).

[34] X: What’s the Bible?

        Y: It’s a book about as old as Jesus himself with trustworthy words about him from God. God is the creator of the universe, and Jesus is his only Son, which means he’s his embodiment on earth.

[35] X: Why does God tell us about Jesus in this book instead of about himself? Why is Jesus our judge instead of God?

        Y: Well, remember, Jesus is the embodiment of God on earth, so in telling us about Jesus this book also tells us about God. And it says that Jesus is our judge.

[36] X: But why is Jesus our judge? Why not God himself?

        Y: God does judge us, alright. It’s our first judgment (Genesis 6:5-7; 8:21; Malachi 3:2), and it’s awful. None of us gets a good score. “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). So we get a second chance. That’s the judgment Jesus brings.

[37] X: Will it be any better?

        Y: Yes, if you entrust your life to him, then it’ll be better (Matthew 3:12). And you don’t even have to perform at a higher level to get this better score (Romans 3:27-28). And this better score will even include not having to be judged at all (John 5:24)! And escaping judgment is much better than getting a good score!

[38] X: How does belief in Jesus do that? What does he do to help us so?

        Y: He’s the Lamb of God who is humiliated and publicly executed in order to free us from our failures (John 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:7). By dying in this horrible way, he is punished by God in our place (Isaiah 53:4-11), so that we ourselves won’t have to be punished for our failures (2 Corinthians 5:21). This way we can escape from God’s standing, awful judgment against us (John 3:36; 1 John 5:10-12).

[39] X: That unbelievable! Why did such a horrible thing have to happen to help us out? Couldn’t it have happened in a less gruesome way?

        Y: No. All of this had to happen – and in this way – because our failures are much worse than we ever suppose (Mark 7:20-22; Romans 7:18; Isaiah 1:5-6; Jeremiah 17:9). Even the good we do is bad (Isaiah 64:6; James 2:10)! So a ransom had to be paid to God (Mark 10:45; Ephesians 5:2) if any of us were to escape everlasting punishment. This ransom, which was Jesus’ very death, is called the just requirement of the law of God (Romans 8:4). And that law or standard of evaluation is holy, just and good (Romans 7:12). So it can’t be skipped over. Jesus takes it head on in his death and overcomes it for us (Romans 5:9, 10:4; Colossians 2:14).

[40] X: Wow! So there really is no other way for us to be saved from a bad judgment. Any and all bloodless rescues would only fail us. Amazing. I would never had thought so about any of this before. So is that it? Or is there more to Christianity than all this business about judgment?

        Y: No, as I said at the beginning, that’s the heart of it. But once you’re safe from everlasting punishment, life before death is also enhanced (1 Timothy 4:8; Ephesians 4:1). You’ll practice personal decency (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). And your care for others will grow because you’re not worrying so much about yourself anymore (1 Corinthians 13:4-6; 2 Peter 1:5-11). And the same assurance will also give you power to resist evil so that this life on earth may have a better chance of improving (Ephesians 6:14-20; 1 Peter 5:8-9; Romans 13:3-4).

[41] X: Wow, there’s sure much good in all that you’ve told me. And I would like to follow this, but I can’t. It’s too weird for me. All the blood and gore and weird ideas and questionable assumptions and contorted inferences! So where does that then leave me? Am I sunk according to Christianity because I can’t get on the band wagon right away?

        Y: No, have no fear. It was forecast that people would be offended by Christianity (Matthew 11:6; 2 Timothy 4:3). It’s to be expected. So not all is lost. You’re still left with a promise. Your misgivings, the Bible says, will give way eventually and you will be drawn to Christ. Even his death for you will lift you (John 12:32). The very thing that repels you now will flip-flop and later draw you in. That’s the promise.

[42] X: When will that happen? Do I just sit and wait for it? Must some tragedy hit me first?

        Y: Let’s hope not! Yes, you can wait, but you can also call on God to open your mind and soften your heart so your doubts will give way to belief (Luke 11:13; Mark 9:24). You can come to church and hear the Bible read and participate in the prayers of believers in worship that are based on that book. For the promise is that whoever hungers and thirsts for righteousness will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6)! So hang in there. Don’t give up!

[43] X: I won’t.

        Y: Good. And I’ll pray for you too. Maybe we can even talk again sometime.

[44] X: Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.

        Y: You might also want to keep in mind an old story about someone like yourself (Acts 26:28). After having had a similar conversation to ours, he said, “In a short time you expect to make me a Christian!” Now let that be a lesson for us. Don’t, therefore, fixate on getting faith quickly. And in the meantime, may we also believe that you’re in God’s hands and that we must wait on his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13; Matthew 26:39; Psalm 62:1; James 4:15).  

(reprinted from the December 2006 issue of The Messenger)



Rejecting Love


Pondering Philemon 1.7

By Pastor Marshall


You’d think we couldn’t get enough of it.  But apparently that’s not the case when it comes to love.  Psychologists have long noted how we detach ourselves from others by rejecting their love for us [Karen Horney, Our Inner Conflicts: A Constructive Theory of Neurosis (Norton, 1945) pp. 74-5, 81].  Now why are we like that?

St. Paul helps us understand.  In Philemon 1.7 he thanks God for Philemon, his brother in Christ, and notes that he has “derived much comfort and joy” from his love for him.  Apparently he could have let this love just sit there – leaving it unused.  But Paul instead took Philemon’s love and gained joy and comfort from it.  He derived [εχομεν, habui] these blessings of comfort and joy from Philemon’s love for him.  Now why wouldn’t we all do this?  Why wouldn’t we all want to make the most of someone’s love for us?

Well, we have our reasons for rejecting love.  Stating them and keeping them in mind will help you struggle to be like St. Paul – and rather than rejecting love – derive comfort and joy from love. 

[1] Not too surprisingly, we reject love when we don’t like the person who is loving us.  So we ignore their love and hope they take it elsewhere.  This is the least complex of the reasons we have for rejecting love.

[2] Next we reject love because it burdens us.  All love seems to come with strings attached.  So even if we like the person who is loving us, we won’t take it if we think we’re being loved for ulterior motives – like having someone to go out dancing with, for example.  But even if there weren’t any such hidden motives and burdens, we would still reject love, on this point, because of the love expected from us in return.  This we don’t want to do because either we’re too tired to, or because other matters mean more to us – like scuba diving, for instance. 

[3] Third we reject love if we think it’s too unstable.  You might love me today, but will you leave me tomorrow?  If the love seems unlikely to last, then we’ll refuse it.  We do that to save ourselves from the pain of languishing over lost love.  So we disagree that “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, then never to have loved at all” [Alfred Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (1850) §27].  The pain of grief clearly trumps every other consideration. 

[4] Or we reject love because we deeply feel we don’t deserve it.  We’re convinced we’re rotten – whether other’s agree with us or not.  Because we dislike ourselves so, we don’t want others to love us either.  So if we were to accept love, we’d then have to admit we were wrong about ourselves.  But our proud – albeit negative – self-assessment won’t allow for that.  Or we don’t think we deserve love because we know we always hurt those who care for us.  And so to avoid watching ourselves make a mess of someone else’s life, we reject their love from the start. 

[5] Fifth we reject love because, regardless who offers it, it lowers our defenses and makes us uncritical and sentimental.  We think this dimming of our discernment makes us vulnerable and unsophisticated.  So in order to protect ourselves from the hazards of life and peer deeply – and insightfully – into human despair, we let love go.  The tortured life with no love at all, is the best life – or so we would say. 

[6] We also reject love to maintain our superiority.  We don’t want to love those who first love us.  That would be too passive and reactionary.  We’d much rather love someone and win them over first, and only then accept their love for us in return.  That keeps us in the driver’s seat.  Then the love we get is only the love we’ve earned.  But as it turns out, love rarely, if ever, comes about that way – and so we’re left with none at all. 

[7] And finally we reject love because of the surge of power it brings.  By rejecting love we can hurt the giver and get away with it.  Having this sort of impact on another person pleases us – especially when we feel unnoticed and disrespected by those whom we admire.  Being mean about love, in this way, doesn’t deter us but rather seems okay to us – as odd as that may sound. 

Now while this list of seven reasons is primarily about human relations (coram hominibus) it also sheds light on our trouble with God (coram deo).  It helps us see why we would reject the Almighty One who spreads out his hands to us (Isaiah 65.2), and the Merciful One who would gather us to himself (Matthew 23.37).  In this analysis, then, we are driven again to cry out, “Who will deliver me” from my confusions and corruption? (Romans 7.24).

(reprinted from The Messenger: Newsletter of First Lutheran Church of West Seattle, Summer 2007)