means of grace

What in the World Should We Do?

One of the greatest Lutheran theologians of the 20th century was a German Lutheran named Hermann Sasse. He was one of the first German clergy to rise up in protest to Hitler. He was, ultimately, a pastor’s pastor. He spent years writing letters around the world to different pastors. These letters encouraged men in their ministries. These letters spurred discussion about the actions that the church-at-large should take in regards the continued proclamation of the Gospel. As I was reading one of these letters today, the following passage hit me. In regards to the question of what the church should do to stem its decline and seemingly certain death, Sasse gives this counsel:

The third thing, however, that we must learn anew is Luther’s invincible faith in the power of the means of grace. Whatever the Church still has and still does should not be minimized. But she does not live from mercy, or from political and social activity. She does not subsist on large numbers. When will the terrible superstition of the Christendom of our day cease that Jesus Christ is powerful only there where two or three million are gathered together in His name? When will we again comprehend that the Church lives by the means of grace of the pure preaching of the Gospel and by the divinely instituted administration of the Sacraments and by nothing else? And for no other reason than because Jesus Christ the Lord is present in His means of grace and builds His Church on earth, being even as powerful as ever before in the history of the Church – even if His power and glory, to speak as our Confessions do, are cruce tectum, hidden under the cross (Ap VII – VIII 18). Oh, what secret unbelief and what little faith we find in the Church that calls herself the Church of the sola fide! May God in His grace eradicate this unbelief and strengthen this weak faith in our souls and renew us through the great faith of the New Testament and the Reformation. That, and that alone, is the manner of overcoming the urgent need of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the greatest and weightiest crisis of her history.

~Hermann Sasse, 1948~

In a world where innovation is often valued over substance… in a world where fads seem to rule the day, may we always strive to keep the simplicity of the the Gospel in front of our eyes and the eyes of our people. May the certainty of the forgiveness of sins and the hope of faith drive all that we say, do, and know. May this not be an encouragement to laziness, but a reevaluation of where the church should always begin. Everything we do is to proclaim and lift up those certain places where God distributes His good gifts to us. It is the place where “for you” renews a sinner in sainthood. It is a place where a simple word can uplift the soul and conquer the prince of this world. Amen and Amen.


Fridays in the Faith: Worship as Life and Life as Worship

The triumphant echo

Like passengers on a train in a dark tunnel, Christians rejoice to be part of a vast company who have passed through the darkness of this world into the brilliant sunshine of God’s glory. This means that worship is always an echo of the distant triumph song of those who even now rest from their labors in God’s eternal presence. Such worship can be many things but never listless or lifeless.

Finally, a revitalization of incarnational and sacramental theology will lead to revitalization of our worship. Contemporary Christians live in a complex world. We face loneliness and anxiety in a world that becomes increasingly hostile as the years go by. We need a way to come into real contact with God. Can entertainment-centered worship provide that contact?

Reality in worship

The Lutheran church has a rich legacy to offer in its worship. Here is reality, not symbolism. Here we have real contact with God; not as we come to him, but as h comes to us. He meets us in the proclamation of the Word. Here the Son of God distributes his actual body and blood for the assurance of the forgiveness of sins. Here the people of God gather to offer him their thanks, their praise and their prayer. This is the real thing!

It’s time for a new initiative in worship. People are longing for God. Where are they going to find him? In the shifting sands of their inner life or on the solid rock of the word of his gospel? How are they to offer him their thanks and praise? With trivial methods borrowed from the entertainment industry or in worship forms which focus on the praise of God’s gracious glory? This is the kind of worship which lifts the heart while it exalts Christ! And this is what Lutheran Worship does.

Life as Worship

The Christian faith, however, is not only a matter of cultus, or formal worship. It is also a matter of culture. There are direct lines leading from the sanctuary to the work place. Too frequently Lutheran Christians have failed to make that connection.

Piety need not be Pietism. It’s significant that Luther included a table of duties for Christians of various vocations in his catechism The life which we live in Christ as he lives through us is to be lived in the context of society, not only in the church. It’s significant, for example, that along with suggested prayers for morning and evening his catechism prescribes the signing of the cross. This was no mechanical formalism, nor some sort of superstitious magic. This action was a vivid reminder that each day is begun, continued, and ended in the death and resurrection of our baptism. Our whole life is a life under the cross of Christ.

The gospel is not only a message; it brings with it a whole new way of looking at life and living it. It is life style Christianity, but it’s a life style freed from the constraints of the legal demands and the plastic superficiality that characterize too much of American Christianity in our day. This life style is nothing less than Christ in action. It is Jesus Christ living out his life in his people!

Excerpt taken from
Harold L. Senkbeil. Sanctification: Christ in Action – Evangelical Challenge and Lutheran Response. (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1989), 181-183. 

Observe the Order

Now when God sends forth his holy gospel he deals with us in a twofold manner, first outwardly, then inwardly. Outwardly he deals with us through the oral word of the gospel and through material signs, that is, baptism and the sacrament of the altar. Inwardly he deals with us through the Holy Spirit, faith, and other gifts. But whatever their measure of order the outward factors should and must precede. The inward experience follows and is effected by the outward. God has determined to give the inward to no one except through outward. For he wants to give no one the Spirit or faith outside of the outward Word and sign instituted by him, as he says in Luke 16:29, “Let the hear Moses and the prophets.” Accordingly Paul can call baptism a “washing of regeneration” wherein God “richly pours out the Holy Spirit” [Titus 3:5]. And the oral gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Romans 1:16).

Observe carefully, my brother, this order, for everything depends on it.

-Martin Luther-

If I have heard it once, I have heard it a million times. “I can be just as close to God out on the lake as I am in church.” “I can just feel God in nature.” It is true that nature serves as proof of the existence of God, however, nature does not serve as proof of the existence of the Gospel. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life, which compose the subject of the Gospel message, are learned nowhere if not from God’s holy word and the sacraments. The Word of God tells us of our Savior and the wonderful acts of God. The Word of God tells us that we can look to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as proof of our salvation. The Word of God also tells us that these means of grace are the means by which our faith is strengthened and our sins are forgiven.

These means of grace have nothing to do with our feelings. It has nothing to do with nature, fishing, hunting, or any of the myriad activities in which we think we feel close to God. These means of grace have to do with the promises of God and where He has promised to meet us. In a fraternal word of encouragement, don’t run from or find reasons to miss God in the ways that He has promised to encounter us. Do not miss His grace where we can be sure it is found… at the font… at the table… in His Word.

Feel free to drop me a comment or question.

The Enduring Presence of Christ

Matthew 28:18-20 says,

And Jesus came to them saying, “All authority in heaven and earth was given to me. Therefore as you are going, make disciples of all nations by baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to keep all things which I have commanded to you. And behold, I am with all the days until the end of the ages.

Whenever someone wants to make a case for missions or evangelism, they often want to appeal to the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday’s reading in the three-year lectionary. This section of Matthew has come to be known as “The Great Commission”. However, it has historically been known as the institution of Holy Baptism. Due to a general misunderstanding of the text and the influence of mainline Protestant theology, the emphasis has become: “Go! Do missions! Oh yeah… baptize and teach. If not, shame on you!” With some very easy context, we see that the emphasis of this passage is vastly different from the myriad agendas and programs that have adopted Matthew 28 as a battle cry.  I do not mean to be snarky or combative, but a different reading of this text gives hope to hopeless, grace to the fallen, and strength to the weak. It becomes not a matter of doing, but a matter of God’s working in our lives. Keep reading. Don’t get bored. This stuff is huge!

It is important to take in the entire context of the passage. The words of Jesus act as book ends. It is important to see the beginning and the end to understand the stuff in the middle. First, Jesus tells His disciples that all authority [or power] in heaven and earth has been given to Him. He ends the passage with a promise. He tells them, “BEHOLD! [Pay attention this is important] I am with you always to the very end of the ages.” In order to understand the thrust of this passage, we must understand that Jesus has power and dominion of ALL THINGS in heaven and on earth. We also must remember that He is ALWAYS with us…. forever… no really, FOREVER! We see Jesus with us nowhere clearer than in His Word and sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

Once we have grasped the authority/power of  Jesus that is always with us, we can begin to see the rest of the passage. After Jesus reminds the disciples of His dominion and power, He tells them, “Therefore, as you are going, make disciples…” I know this is normally translated as a command or imperative [Go!]. But it is a participle. It carries a force of continuing action (going). After Jesus gives the one imperative in the passage [make disciples], He tells the disciples how to make disciples… by baptizing and teaching. In baptism, we see the gift of the Holy Spirit given to human beings. We see the creation of faith. We see the application of the promises of God and salvation. In baptism, we see God truly with His people. We see forgiveness. Just in case you forgot, BEHOLD!!! He is with you all the days until the very end of the age.

The very nature of Christ’s presence and power sends us out to live among others. While we live among others, we live as testimonies of those things which Christ is working in us (namely forgiveness and eternal life). The presence of Christ… His Word… Baptism… The Lord’s Supper… all of it sends out to our neighbors and the people in our lives. Christ offers them the same blessings and eternal life. As we go, we make disciples through Christ’s supreme authority and enduring presence in our lives. It is all about the Gospel. It is not about what we do. It is all about God’s work in the world.

Drop me a line in the comments if you have any comments or questions. This can be challenging but it makes all the difference in the world. Congrats for reading to the end!

TTFN… Pastor Niles