An Open Letter to the Guilty

This is not for anyone for whom everything is great.  This is not for those with perfect families, perfect faith, a perfect congregation, or perfect health.  This is for the guilty and the desolate.

I think you know the Gospel, but you have never believed it, not really.  You thought the Gospel was for those who are nice, those who have things under control.  You thought the Gospel was for those whose sin is manageable, who seem to breeze through life without any regrets.

You think that your sin is too great, that God would not want a sinner such as you.  You think that your sin disqualifies you from serving in your congregation.  You think that people would shun you if they knew who you “really are.”  You think that God is visiting the consequences of your sin upon your children.  Otherwise, why would they suffer the way that they do?  What did they do to deserve what has happened to them?

You were always in the Church, but you were somehow sold a lie about the mercy of God.  Somehow you came to believe that God would make everything in your life turn out okay if only you kept “believing.”  But your faith wasn’t in Christ; it was in your faith.  In other words, your faith was in you, in your ability to go on believing things about God.

You heard the Gospel, but you didn’t really believe it.  Because the Gospel is not “everything will be okay in this life.”  The Gospel isn’t “God accepts people who don’t do anything bad enough to disqualify them from grace.”  The Gospel isn’t “as long as you keep up your end of the Law, then God will bless you and your family.”

The Gospel is one thing, and one thing only: Jesus Christ, crucified to save sinners.  All sinners.  You.  And especially the bad sinners, who can’t figure out why nothing seems to go right for them.  Who think, like Job’s friends, that there must be something they’ve done or left undone that has brought about these circumstances.  Who are out of control and can’t drag themselves out of the pits they seem inevitably to dig.  The Gospel is for those who can’t quite believe that Jesus died also for them.  The Gospel is for those who recoil in horror from the awful reality of their own sin.  The Gospel is for you.

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An Entirely Wrong Scriptural Sermon

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C.F.W. Walther gives us some insight into why not every sermon (or song, for that matter) that is built from the Scriptures is a true or orthodox sermon.

That is the litmus test of a proper sermon.  The value of a sermon depends not only on whether every statement in it is taken from the Word of God and on whether it is in agreement with the same but also on whether Law and Gospel have been rightly distinguished.  If the same building materials are provided to two different architects, sometimes one will construct a magnificent building, while the other, using the same materials, will make a mess of it.  Because he is dim-witted, the latter may want to begin with the roof, or place all the windows in one room, or stack layers of stone or brick in such a way that the wall will be crooked.  One house will be out of plumb and such a bungled piece of work that it will collapse, while the other will stand firm and be a habitable and pleasant place to live.  In like manner, two different sermons might contain all the various doctrines–and while the one sermon may be a glorious and precious piece of work, the other may be wrong throughout.  …

This frequently happens when students give sermons. [Walther is giving lectures to seminary students.]  You will hear comforting remarks such as “It is all by grace,” only to be followed by “We must do good works,” which are then followed by statements such as “With our works we cannot gain salvation.”  There is no order to such sermons.  Nobody understands them–least of all the person who needs one of these doctrines most.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, 37-38

True Reformation

For the church does not live by morals, by the knowledge and observance of God’s law.  Nor does it live by religion, by lofty experiences of the divine and an awareness of the mysteries of God.  It lives solely by the forgiveness of sins.  Hence reformation does not consist, as the late Middle Ages believed, and as has been believed in wide circles of the Protestant world, of an ethico-religious correction, of a moral quickening and a spiritual deepening throughout the church.  It consists, rather, according to its own peculiar nature, of the revival of the preaching of the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake.  That such a revival of the church’s message must have important consequences also in reviving the life of its members and in renovating the external forms of the church is only natural.  But these are only consequences.  What the world called, and still does call, reformation of the church is only the fruit of the real Reformation, the revival of the pure doctrine of the Gospel.

Hermann Sasse, Here We Stand, 69-70

The Central Message of the Gospel?

Asked about the election of a new pope, Pres. Obama said this:

“I don’t know if you have checked lately but the Conference of Catholic Bishops here in the United States don’t seem to be taking orders from me,” said Obama. “My hope is, based on what I know about the Catholic Church and the terrific work that they’ve done around the world and certainly in this country, you know, helping those who are less fortunate, is that you have a pope who sustains and maintains what I consider the central message of the Gospel that we treat everybody as children of God and that we love them the way Jesus Christ taught us to love them.”

Here, the president is a typical American Evangelical and, at the same time, ironically, a typical Roman Catholic.  That is, however, not the central message of the Gospel, which has always been and always will be: Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected for you, a sinner.  Otherwise, it’s simply not good news.

On the other hand, Luther:

In the voice of the Gospel God is glorified and preached in Christ…This is what will take place in preaching.  Nor shall anything else be heard in the church but the voice of praise and proclamation of God’s blessings which we have received.  This song is in conflict with all human wisdom and righteousness, which are our works and in which we seek our own glory rather than give thanks to God.  Hence, to be pleasing to God is simply to acknowledge that we are the recipients of His blessings, not the donors.  A Christian confesses that he was condemned and lost and that he has received from Christ everything that belongs to salvation and righteousness; all his own merits [even love!] he considers worth nothing.  This is the fullest and most perfect sacrifice, and it embraces everything in the Old Testament.  There animals and cattle were slaughtered; here our own wisdom and righteousness, our endeavors and works. [Commentary on Isaiah 12:1, LW 16:128]

Timotheos