NEW RELEASE: Pastor Marshall's last book, "Pandemic Sermons," has just been released at Amazon.com. It is in full color. These sermons are from 2020 and 2021. If you would like a copy, you can order it at amazon.com. Also, Smile.amazon.com 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.
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]!
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
thunder isn’t dreamed up, but comes from God himself. So in Exodus
19:19, God speaks from
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
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, הקּד ממהדּ 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, ממהדּ, 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
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)!
Newsletter of First Lutheran
By Pastor Marshall
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
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
is included begins with
(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.
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).
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).
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
from The Messenger, June 2008)
The Rev. Ronald F. Marshall
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"
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).
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
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).
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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),
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.
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
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:
his disciples spoke the Lord,
out to ev'ry nation,
bring to them the living Word
this my invitation:
ev'ryone abandon sin
come in true contrition
be baptized, and thereby win
pardon and remission,
heav'nly bliss inherit."
woe to those who cast aside
grace so freely given;
shall in sin and shame abide
to despair be driven.
born in sin, their works must fail,
striving saves them never;
pious acts do not avail,
they are lost forever,
Eternal death their portion.
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,...no 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).
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).
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 .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).
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).
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).
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. MARSHALLis 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
by Pastor Marshall
Dangerous & Dialectical
Boredom in the Church
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.
in the Church
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.
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.
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
Kierkegaard (1813-1855) called this sort of Christianity one that has lost
its spring or tension:
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]
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]
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.
Way of Antithesis
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).
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.
builds on Luther’s antitheses with his dialectical method. It seeks to
present Christianity as composed of “infinite wrestling”:[xii]
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
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):
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]
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).
From John 14:1-6
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 (
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.
14:2 Versus John 14:3
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.
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”
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.
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).
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.
Foolish & Foul
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:
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
See Mike Regele, Death of the
Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), Thomas C. Reeves, The
See “Heaven Help Us,” Newsweek, March 6, 1995.
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).
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 (
See 2 Timothy 4:2; Acts 17:11; Hebrews 9:28; Romans 12:11.
See Matthew 26:40; 2 Thessalonians 3:11; Philippians 4:8; Revelation
William Shakespeare, Othello (1604) I.ii.58-59.
Sermons of Martin Luther, 8
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.
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:
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.
Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals
& Papers, 7 vols, (Indiana University Press, 1967-1978) §775.
David F. Swenson, Something About
The Book of
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
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
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
(reprinted from The Messenger, June 2009, revised 6-2-2013.)
Wayward and Harmful Teaching
Up the Lutheran Women Today Bible
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.
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!
(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
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
But this isn’t what the book of Job teaches! Rejecting the
principle of reward and punishment can only come from blind guides
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(inspired by a couple of actual
Can you tell me about Christianity and why it matters? I know almost
nothing about it.
Yes I can. It has to do with the future.
What do you mean?
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?
If you’re talking about my summer vacation, yes, I am.
Okay, but isn’t even that choice limited?
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.
Yes, true. But aren’t there still other even weirder limitations on
your summer vacation plans – weirder than how much money you can
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.
Oh, come on! That’s ridiculous.
True. But I said they were weird. Even so what they show is that you
also live with other, hidden limitations on your future.
I suppose, if you put it that way.
Now do you think there are any other hidden ones that matter even more
that these albeit silly ones?
I don’t know. Like what?
Well, are there any moral ones, for instance?
Like what? What would a moral limitation on my future be?
Well, a forced option would be one.
X: What’s that?
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?
X: I suppose it could. Would
that be like an unwanted pregnancy?
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.
X: Yes, I see. But what’s
your point? Where’s this leading?
Well, are there even bigger moral limitations on you than these awful
X: Well, like what?
Well, how about if there will be a forced evaluation of you in the
X: You mean like a job
evaluation, or something?
Y: Yes, like that, but bigger.
X: You mean like an obituary
in the newspapers?
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?
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
That’s right. There won’t be anything you can do about it. But now
there’s an even more important question to ask.
X: What’s that?
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?
X: Well, I suppose there
could be. But what do you mean by more serious?
Well, one that is thorough and truly unavoidable. One that would make
a hit-and-miss newspaper obit look silly.
X: You mean one that I most
certainly couldn’t escape and that would include every last thing
Yes, that’s it. Good again!
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
Precisely. But what if such a judge did exist? Then what?
X: Well, I don’t know.
I’ve never thought about it.
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?
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?
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?
X: I don’t know, it would
all depend on what those mean. And what do they mean?
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).
X: That seems impossible –
a mere fantasy. But if it were true, it would be quite disconcerting.
I agree. And by bifurcation I mean that your assessment will only go
either to your advantage or disadvantage – with no guarantees and no
X: That makes it even worse.
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.
I know. And by finality I mean you can’t appeal the judgment. No
other judges are involved.
one else can help you.
X: Pretty hard-nosed.
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.
X: Sounds like a horror
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?
X: Oh my goodness, yes!
Also, wouldn’t you think it would be a good idea to see to it that
you get a good score?
X: Oh, yes, for sure, if
what you’ve said is true.
Yes, and that’s where Christianity comes in.
X: How so?
Christianity teaches about a man named Jesus Christ who lived about
2000 years ago in
X: How does he do that?
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.
X: What’s there to believe
in about him?
In the Bible it says he is the one who judges us all (John 5:22).
X: What’s the Bible?
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.
X: Why does God tell us
about Jesus in this book instead of about himself? Why is Jesus our
judge instead of God?
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.
X: But why is Jesus our
judge? Why not God himself?
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.
X: Will it be any better?
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!
X: How does belief in Jesus
do that? What does he do to help us so?
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).
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?
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).
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?
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
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?
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.
 X: When will that happen? Do I just sit and wait for it? Must some
tragedy hit me first?
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!
 X: I won’t.
Good. And I’ll pray for you too. Maybe we can even talk again
 X: Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.
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
from the December 2006 issue of The Messenger)