Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Another response to a response

Dr. Newton,
Thanks for responding. I have posted your response to my blog. I am glad for the conversation. I still don't know that I agree with your position a hundred percent. But I do understand it better, and it makes more sense now. Perhaps, if nothing else our conversation has had the effect of clearing up the message, for greater understanding.
But here is my hard hang up. Feed my sheep. Law or Gospel. I can't help to agree with you that there is implied gospel here. Christ wouldn't trust someone to feed his sheep, who he doesn't love, forgive etc. Got that, but that there is an implied "forgive you behind it," there is still a "Go and do" and that is the law. Perhaps I don't listen to my brothers enough. I don't know any who debate that God has entrusted his church, the forgiven sheep with the message of reconciliation. I do know many who labor painstakingly to do this, and are tired and worn, and do not see the results they would like. And the implied gospel in this statement is not enough, because they have failed the go and do part too many times. That is me. I have failed too many times. I have even failed to feed the sheep entrusted to my care at times. I don't think Peter was receiving absolution there. He was receiving law, a command. A law we fail to do, even as my son often fails to come to the dinner table in a timely manner. So when I hear Feed my sheep, I hear law, I remember failures. What I need to here and what many of my brothers need to here is Christ forgives them for even those failures.

Dear Bror,
Thanks for getting back to me so quickly. I am glad that this conversation back and forth is making some progress. That was my assumption in writing back to you the first time. Your critique ran underneath the surface a strong current of serving our Lord in all fidelity, confidence, and love.

I couldn’t agree with you more when you remind me of how much we pastors and missionaries beat ourselves up. We never do enough and we know it. We seem to carry around a huge bag filled with the small and large stones of sin, missteps, negligence, discouragement, inability, fear . . . It makes it hard to run the race of faith carrying a large sack of rocks. I don’t need to tell you that. I hear it in every word that you write. Brother, the only thing that drowns out the sound of your own growning and panting is the sound of my own. What often makes this bag so heavy is we carry it by ourselves, that is we carry it alone. We so easily forget that Christ carried it for us. We forget because it is our nature to forget. Lutheran theology recognizes and confesses that reality. That is why we cling to the “extra nos” character of the Gospel. To be extra nos, by definition, the Gospel must come to you or me by someone else. So who brings you the Gospel? I do not mean occasionally but often. Missionary/pastors like yourself are especially prone to “carrying the bag” alone. By choice (obedience to the Gospel) you labor in places far away (geographically and spiritually) from the Gospel offered in the church main.

Now, to talk about the Feed my Lambs paradox: Law or Gospel. Answer, Yes. What do I mean? Consider St. Peter as John 21 opens. “I am going fishing” Or, getting under the larger context: I quit! I have no choice but to go back to those things I was doing before He found us the first time and called us to follow Him. I failed. I failed miserably and I can’t fix that. I know that He is alive, we’ve all seen Him. But you guys need to understand something, I failed Him. The question on the table is not about His faithfulness, but mine. And I proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am unfaithful. I denied Him not once, not twice, but three times. How much clearer does it have to be?

It is that human and pastoral context into which the resurrected Lord walked that morning. Note this Easter vignette in light of all of the Easter story. The story’s opening finds saints running to Jesus’ Tomb in order to attend to His needs in death. The rest of the story finds Jesus running to each of the saints where they are stuck in their own “tombs” whether those be dug by grief, ignorance of “what has been written”, doubt, or, in Peter’s case, guilt. In each case Jesus spoke a very clear word of Gospel, I’m not sure in any case that it was with the word Forgive. Nevertheless He was, in His person, proclaiming the purest fullest Gospel possible to each of them. The Gospel makes all things new and that is what the resurrected Lord did in each and every case.

So now Peter. Trapped in his sins, he quit doing what Jesus had called him (by grace alone) to do. His sin knocked him out of the saddle. The Law is not going to put him back into it. Only the Gospel can do that.

Again, Bror, the words, Feed my Lambs are Law just as is Love your neighbor. So, you are absolutely right the words as words are not Gospel. They are Law. However, Jesus was speaking them not to tell Peter what to do but to restore him to something he could not restore himself. It took a word, a Gospel word, outside himself and from God Himself to put him back in the saddle. That is the Gospel. Do not forget who is speaking it. Christ Himself.

Bror, your call into the ministry to feed lambs and to seek the lost and the erring is purest Gospel. No, it does not save you. It has nothing to do with being Born anew, or being eternally alive. But it is God’s statement to you everyday of who you are as his son and as his son what he delights in having you do as part of His Kingdom. His call to you to feed sheep is a call that is not about your good works or your failures and sins. It is about a God who calls you out of His unconditional love. Every night you fall into bed a failure. Every morning He wakes you up and says, “Son, get up, we have a lot of work to do. No sleeping in, I really need you in the barn, or field, or …” You get the point. His nudging you on the shoulder every morning and waking you to a new day of service in His Kingdom with all of the good works (Third use of the Law) that He has foreordained that you should walk in” is more than forgiveness. It is complete restoration to sonship and as such co-owner of the family business.

I am going to close this note with a quote from a paper I wrote last summer for a convocation. It may very well muddy the waters. If so then, let’s keep writing. Actually, I would like to sit and talk about these things over a beer or two. But we will continue talking in any event. God bless you brother.

For some time now folks in our synod have been arguing over the Mission of God and our participation in it: Is it by Law or Gospel? The question is not whether Christ’s Mission to save the world is Law or Gospel. Christ’s Mission is the Gospel for the world. The question is strictly about our participation in God’s Mission. Do we enter it by Law or Promise, by obligation or gift? St. Paul answers that it is by Promise entered into by faith alone. Such faith does not even ask the question of whether our participation in the Mission is Law or Gospel. Hear the Confessors’ voice,

For as Dr. Luther writes in the preface to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, “Faith is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, [1 John 1:12-12]. It kills the old ‘Adam’ and makes us all together different people, in heart and spirit and mind and all powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such good works, however, is an unbeliever, who gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet such a person talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works. Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake life on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes people glad and bold and happy in dealing God and with all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs by faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown this grace. Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire (FC SD Article IV).

How we answer the question of our participation in the Missio Dei reveals finally on how we understand our relationship to God. What is it and how is it ours, by Law or by Gospel? These greater questions underlie Jesus’ stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost sons.

We know the context for Jesus telling the three “lost and found” stories in Luke 15. Scribes and Pharisees—we should assume very pious and serious adherents of God’s Word—were grumbling, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” If the mood of the stories is any indication, Jesus not only ate with sinners, He had a jolly good time doing so. It was party time. In each of the three stories Jesus pressed home the related points of celebration and personal possession. “Which man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open field and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it?” Why did the man and woman deliberately and diligently seek that which was lost until they found it? And why did they celebrate so heartily when they found what was lost? Simple. That which was lost belonged to them and was, therefore, precious to them. Jesus brought the point home finally in his story of the lost son. The older son grumbled because his father chose to celebrate the finding of the younger son who had been lost. “How dare you eat with sinners!” Listen to Jesus’ response to the older son’s complaint: It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found. Note that Jesus did not say, “This my son was lost,” but rather “This your brother. . .” Note the shared ownership of the lost boy.

The real problem, however, was not in the older brother’s inability to accept that he was brother to the prodigal son, but that he was son to the gracious father and that as his son he was full heir of all that his father possessed, including his prodigal brother now returned. Listen to his bitter complaint, “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet, you never gave me [as much as] a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.” He talked of himself as a slave not a son, a laborer not a co-owner of the ranch. And though he served faithfully many, many years he never received even as much as a kid in order to throw a dinner party. That’s where he didn’t get it. Why did he think that his father had to give him a goat in order to throw a party? Didn’t he already own the goat? Didn’t he already own all of the goats? After all, he was the father’s son. What belonged to his father belonged also to him. He wasted all those years slaving for his father out of servile obligation rather than serving with his father as son and co-owner. Not understanding or choosing to disbelieve that he was the gracious father’s son closed his heart to celebrating his brother’s return. How would the older son answer the question, “Is participation in Christ’s mission by Law or by Gospel?” How would the gracious father answer it?


Anonymous said...

Bror, et. al.,

First out of the box, I am a layman as it goes to theology and Christianity. So as to not be deceptive in that I am a layman who reads a fair amount. I offer some thoughts on the subject having come from deep SB/Baptist roots with some later years sprinkling of Reformed. I say that because I think that affects even Lutheran circles and they (we now for me) may be experiencing a problem that those of us who have been on the “other side” understand experientially quite a bit. Take them and leave them as you wish. So concerning the discussion at hand and the command:

First, I agree that I could EASILY list more times I didn’t go than I did and I hear Law accusing me. On the flip side when I was hearing Law but “was doing” a lot (per se), I tended to do it, if I’m honest, not all different than the way that John Wesley once was to have reported to admitting in a candid personal letter; that he did all his evangelism efforts if he dared to admit “to save his own soul”. For me back then when it was pushing me “as Law”, back in my old SB days, I did it to “prove my faith/salvation/election” because that’s where the terror was for me. In SB religion one hears more about “doing evangelism” rather than the evangel itself, even from the best theologians they have to offer and thus one looses Christ but gets very busy. That’s another religion in opposition to when the message itself, the Gospel, propagates itself due to its STUNNING report.

As a side note that is why the protestant good works “prove faith” is equal to Rome’s “faith formed by love” and thoroughly antichristic – because at the end of the day I have to admit to what John Wesley had the guts to admit to and that is ‘my proving faith/salvation/conversion/election’ for myself was not significantly different from “trying to save myself”. One has to think in the once saved/can’t fall away paradigm (really experientially be IN IT, not just academically), without sacraments, and reinterpret it back through Luther’s other paradigm. For here works salvation “post conversion”, on the other side of the ‘once saved/can’t fall away’ paradigm line in the sand that is crossed only once, via third use of the law and etc – here works salvation under the guise of “proving faith (election/rebirth, etc…)” slips back into the equation and are exactly like, not just similar to, but PRECISELY Rome’s “faith formed by love” and a denial of Christ. Anyway that is a connected side trail.

Back to the item at hand:

Secondly, I just read this the other day in an old 2001 LCMS Synod paper. It was very helpful, again coming from the outside in sometimes helps, I think, see these things more clearly. The paper was speaking about the issue of evangelism and basically goes to show that the command from the Great Commission which explicitly says make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them all that I have commanded is explicitly spelling out what evangelism truly is. And we can see this more clearly if we look at what it is not according to our day and age. In our day and age, particularly evangelical circles in which I was in, evangelism could be summed up as “get’em in as fast as you can and we can clean up their theology/doctrine later”. But that is not at all what Jesus commanded, He commanded baptize and teach them ALL that He commanded. Thus, the paper goes on to well spell out, that “maintenance of the baptized church folk” and evangelizing those the unbelievers is ALL evangelism. The pastor’s preaching every Sunday, the LS, SS classes as well as outward evangelism are all evangelism, because that’s what the GC explicitly says. For what is the Lord’s Supper weekly but a “proclamation of the Lord’s death until He returns”! Also, we are in the midst of our catechism classes for membership at this wonderful Gospel rich LCMS church. We meet once a week. I told my wife, “You know you hear of sin and Christ crucified not just on Sundays but in these classes. Now we’ve been Christians for years now (my wife a very long time, and myself for around 10 now) and we go and even in these Thursday night classes the pastor is evangelizing us within them (teach all). It’s rich and deep and Christ proclaimed to us in a catechesis way. Its true evangelism as Jesus explicitly commanded, “teach them ALL things I commanded”. And you know what I’m not offended by hearing it afresh as a convert of many years now.” The point being is we in America due to evangelical infection have a very narrowly skewed and erroneous concept of evangelism per evangelicalisms great errors and not per the Great Commission. I had to read that 2001 paper to realize this but in reality Christ is quite plain and clear in the GC once it’s pointed out to you. If He’d only said the Great Commission was to “teach all things”, its kind of obvious on its own – our ears are a bit dull and skewed I think.

I say that having come from evangelical circles that busied themselves up with the “get’em in clean’em up later” concept of “evangelism”. It does “generate numbers” but 99.9% of the time it’s not really giving the Gospel and Christ but decisional theology and secondly the “clean’em up later” doesn’t ever really happen. Many false converts, many short lived starts. Plus, the “clean’em up later” really is rank disobedience to the command is it not, “teach all things”. Christ says evangelism is this, “baptize and teach them all things I commanded” and man says, “get’em in and clean’em up later” – rank ‘in your face disobedience.

Finally, this reminds me of a similar debate I was once reading a year ago not so much regarding specifically the command to go and do relating to evangelism, but rather good works in general. The issue was the same, are such commands Law or Gospel? Pastor Bill Cwirla quoted Hal Senkbeil on something I’ve never forgot to answer the question. It’s one of my favorite Gospel quotes of all time:

Cwirla paraphrasing and putting into the context of the ‘is it law or gospel’ debate, Hal Senkbeil from “Sanctification - Christ in action.”

“That Christ, by His perfect active obedience, has already fulfilled your vocation for you and brought it to its glorious telos (perfect completion) in His all-reconciling death (which means there's no way for you to screw it up except the refusal to be reconciled), that you're essentially dead, you no longer live but Christ lives in you, so that it is Christ at work who serves your neighbor, and Christ is in your neighbor to serve ("as often as you have done it to the least of these, you've done it to me").

So the One who receives your ministrations of vocation is also the One who perfected them in His vocation as the embodiment of humanity under the Law, and who gives you His perfection as a free gift that you might enjoy your vocation in His glorious liberty and stop agonizing over whether it's Law or Gospel.”

That reorients the whole question and debate about as nicely and shortly as anyone could put it.



Bror Erickson said...

Thanks Larry.

Brigitte said...

Larry writes: "But that is not at all what Jesus commanded, He commanded baptize and teach them ALL that He commanded."

--That's what I've been thinking throughout the discussion: Catechesis!

Let the pastor be well prepared for his sermons, his Bible studies, his catechesis (do that well! Prepare, don't be lazy, there! Read, grow, share. Be flexible. Be aware of your hearers. Work at it. (is that law?))-- and let the Word take care of the rest.

In my personal "success stories", in terms of getting people into church, it has to be credited to the faithful catechesis of a good pastor. I have three god-children who were baptized on their confirmation after attending with my children for two years.

The pastor was very flexible to teach on Sunday morning, so that these children could attend (distances, lack of family support). Otherwise, there would have been no way. He also was kind and deep, though he was ill and not very energetic.

Now, the congregation could have been more open-minded. These unchurched young people, though faithful in their attendance, were something of an anomaly and usually viewed more as people whom the M family brought, rather than individuals whom they themselves might befriend. So, I think the "lens" could indeed be improved. There is a point there.

Even the outreach efforts of church most active and "successful" in our town are a type of "catechesis". The Missionary Alliance advertises and runs "Alpha courses" and the "Truth Project", (whether or not you approve of all of the contents; most likely not; I don't. But quite a bit of it is good.), which both attempt to teach basic Christian substance. It is a more glitzy attempt at a type of catechesis.

My two cents worth.

Bror Erickson said...

"Let the pastor be well prepared for his sermons, his Bible studies, his catechesis (do that well! Prepare, don't be lazy, there! Read, grow, share. Be flexible. Be aware of your hearers. Work at it. (is that law?))-- and let the Word take care of the rest."
Yes it is law, but still enjoyable. I only have two categories for these things law or Gospel. I don't see forgiveness there, so it must be law. If I don't do those things (and I do fail) I am guilty of dropping the ball on my God given vocation. If I don't do those things I am not doing the things God has asked me to do. For that I deserve hell.
Only by the blood of Christ will a priest spare adding his skull to the pavers on the highway to hell.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...


Just glad to see that you and Dr. Newton are having a good conversation. He presented a talk (close to the one you are discussing, but in presentation form) - we only were able to chat before and not afterwards. Dr. Newton is a fellow I like, even if I don't always agree with him for reasons that are obvious to you. Keep up the good discussion since you've got one going.