Friday, June 5, 2015


Anyone can read the Bible. Can anyone receive and understand it’s content? At first, even the skeptic will frown, shake his head, and rant about how many contradictions he sees—between salvation as God’s work (Eph. 2:8-9) and our need to work out our own salvation (Phil. 2:13). She’ll quote endless amount of scholars in support that Genesis 1 tells a different creation narrative than Genesis 2. Even some Christians are baffled by the wrathful display of God as angry in the Old Testament and God’s kindness in the New. Many Christians offer friends this advice: Just give it time. Read the Bible cover to cover. Start with the Gospel of John. Give the Holy Spirit a chance to work on your heart. The Holy Spirit certainly works through the Word He inspired certain apostles, evangelists and prophets to write. (2 Peter 1:21) Even so, He never works apart from that Word—its grammar, syntax, its various historical settings. So, even after some time alone reading the Bible, the skeptic may still see contradictions, historical inaccuracies and consolation that seems too old-fashioned or too simple to be true. How can this book be any more special than the Qur’an or the Vedas or the Book Of Mormon? How can it give me a true picture of Jesus Christ, let alone the true way of eternal life? Before delving into lots of technicalities about God or the Trinity or salvation, let’s remind ourselves that the Bible is a book. It’s a book full of words, sentences, and paragraphs. The rules of grammar, syntax and logic apply. The Lutheran Reformers pointed this out when challenged to prove their teaching on God’s forgiveness/justification came from the Bible. In some places, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession explains, the reader finds the commands of the Law and in others the promises of the Gospel. Context counts. We can’t usually take in a Bible verse’s meaning just by hearing or reading it by itself. Even John 3:16, the Gospel in a nutshell, sits in the middle of a discussion between Jesus and Nicodemus. Whether one interprets John 3:16 as the evangelist’s commentary on Jesus’ words or as the continuation of Jesus conversation, he sees previous verses saying that this same God who sent Jesus for us is He who raised up a bronze serpent in the wilderness to which the people might look if they were bitten by the poisonous snakes sent against them. (John 3:13-15, Num. 21:4-9) In the same way, clearer passages help us understand those which appear obscure to us. Prov. 8 personifies wisdom using feminine pronouns. Yet, wisdom is not a separate deity from the Lord our only, true God. Earlier, the king reminds his son to follow the way of wisdom (4:11), promising that by it he’ll gain understanding. (1:7, 3:5ff) 1 Cor. 1 Cor. 1:18-31 make wisdom clear to us. Even Gentiles seek wisdom—hoping by it to have their own grasp on God. Yet, true wisdom is Jesus Christ. He reveals this not only in His teachings but even more so in His death for us on the cross for our salvation. Likewise, the Old and New Testametn don’t divide God’s disposition or dispensation of His will. Rather, the Old Testament points to Christ who was to come and the New reveals Christ who has come for us. C.F.W. Walther—the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s first president, wrote ““Do not think that the Old Testament reveals a wrathful and the New Testament a gracious God, or that the Old Testament teaches salvation by a person's own works and the New Testament salvation by faith. No. We find both teachings in the Old as well as in the New Testament. But the moment we understand how to distinguish between Law and Gospel, it is as if the sun were rising upon the Scriptures, and we behold all the contents of the Scriptures in the most beautiful harmony. We see that the Law was not revealed to us to put a notion into our heads that we could become righteous by it, but to teach us that we are completely unable to fulfill the Law. Then we will know what a sweet message—what a glorious doctrine—the Gospel is and will receive it with exuberant joy.”” (Walther, LAW AND GOSPEL, p70) Somewhere I’ve heard it said that the Bible is simple enough for a child to get its teaching—Jesus Christ saves us from our sins, death and the devil to everlasting life—yet, it’s depth confounds the most trained theologian. Hence, at the end of his second epistle, Peter encourages us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) While the message of the Bible focuses on Christ Jesus as our Savior, its insight helps us apply this Gospel to many situations in life. That can be tough for ourselves, for our families and anyone else who speaks with us. Walther writes: “Indeed, Luther says that sometimes he had blasphemous thoughts. Suddenly a new light shone upon [Luther], showing him the kind of righteousness of which the Gospel is speaking. He relates that from that moment on, he began to run through all of Scripture to get a clear understanding as to which portions of Scripture are Law and which are Gospel. He says that he pried into every book in the Bible, and now all of it became clear to him. Once he understood this distinction, he became the reformer. This is also the reason he was so incredibly successful when he went public with these ideas. With his new insight, Luther freed the poor people from the misery into which the Law-preaching of their priests had driven them (LAW AND GOSPEL, p71).” Of course, we often view our lives in hindsight. Getting up in the morning, sending kids to school, throwing ourselves together for work and pressing on to phone calls, meetings and other business leaves us little time to consider every decision we make ahead of time. That’s why Scripture emphasizes our repentance of sins because we commit so many of them in thought, words and actions every day. (1 John 1:8, Ps. 130:3, Joel 2:13) For the same God who calls us to account also offers His daily forgiveness, His pardon and reprieve. (1 John 1:9, Ps. 130:4, Joel 2:13) God’s Law never stands as an end in and of itself. Instead, it always returns us to the promises and consolation Jesus gives us. He’s the Law’s end, after all (Rom. 10:4). He’s fulfilled the whole thing in His life, suffering, death, and risen as our forever high priest. Every command in Scripture has as its basis God’s gifts—that we either desist from misusing them or that we may be warned against their misuse. That’s why truly keeping God’s commandments involves a fear of God’s wrath along with a love for Him and trust in His Word. Fear of His wrath leads us to daily seek how His wrath is satisfied—in Jesus’ fulfillment of each and every one of the ten commandments and more. (Ex. 20:1-17, Matt. 5:17-20) Jesus shepherds us back to the water and Word of Holy Baptism. For there He marked His with His cross personally. He dressed us in Himself and called us Abraham’s offspring by faith. (Gal. 3:26-29) Maybe, you’ve heard the same objection I have—that Scripture is God’s Word, no matter how you slice it and we need to learn its principles for real life. Yes, advice can be good for us. Fellowship groups can certainly help us find some Biblical statements on money or marriage or raising children. Yet, again, all depends on context. If we mine the Scriptures only seeking such statements, we can number them 1-10 or even more…without fully keeping a single one of them. Our consciences, like the Law we seek, will always accuse us of coming up short of any expectation. Even a well-meaning urge to repentance without the consolation of Jesus’ forgiveness leaves us high, dry and afraid to glimpse our reflection in the mirror. Again, C.F.W. Walther cautions us to regard the distinction between Law/command and Gospel/promise in Holy Scripture as key for our daily comfort and assurance day in and day out .”…so that these two doctrines may not be mingled with each other, or Law be made out of the Gospel. This mingling hides the merit of Christ and robs troubled consciences of their comfort, which they otherwise have in the Holy Gospel when it is preached genuinely and in its purity. The Gospel supports them in their most severe trials against the terrors of the Law.” “If these two doctrines are not kept separate, the merit of Christ is hidden. For if I am afraid of the threats of the Law, I have forgotten Christ, who says to me: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”” (Walther, LAW AND GOSPEL, p73) Because none of us ever will get this distinction right until our Lord takes us through death’s portal to our eternal rest, our Lord Himself never stops bringing us His Word of peace, of absolution. He meets us in daily devotions through the written Word read at home or work or school. He helps us husbands and wives give voice to forgiveness as a flurry of emotions or some miscommunication simmers. Pastors get the joy of preaching sermons with the proper distinction between God’s commands and promises underlying every word they speak from the pulpit. Yes, pastors expect that we’ll come to church each week burdened with some frustration or trouble, a blown relationship, a snit at school, guilt due to lack of effort at work. They face the very same things in their families, in the run-around between parishioner visits and, yes…even at the church. The are called and ordained to be forgiveness men. They get to talk with us in their office privately as if Christ stands before us face to face giving us private absolution. They put His body and blood in our mouths at the altar during the Divine Service or when visiting a shut-in or someone at home. They baptize newborn infants and adults—being the first to welcome the newest members of the kingdom of God. Yet, “the preacher will not rightly proclaim these facts unless the distinction between Law and Gospel is burned into his brain. Only then can the listener lie down and die in peace on his deathbed.” (ibid.) What a blessing for them to proclaim and an equally great joy for us to hear. After all, each sermon a pastor preaches may be the last someone hears before their death. We rejoice in hearing, reading and studying God’s written Word everyday. The Bible remains God’s gift and treasure chest into which we, His saints, get to look. There is the message of salvation by grace through trust in Christ alone. Commands and promises guide us through every literary context, through every book of the Bible that we may be thoroughly equipped in faith toward God and growing love for each other. We pray, then, as Walther encourages us. ““May God, then, who has kindled this light for us, preserve it for us!—through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit in the glory of God our heavenly Father. (Walther, LAW AND GOSPEL, p75)

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