Critique of a “White Paper”
‘Accountability and Faithfulness in Reaching the Lost’
By Bror Erickson
I don’t know Rev. Robert Newton very well personally. Though, I have respect for him due to mutual friends of ours, his daughter, Rachel whom I came to know at Concordia University Irvine, a school dedicated to the Great Commission for which reason we were both there. We were both students who had spent at least some of our childhood on the mission field due to the vocation of our fathers. I will start by saying I have the utmost respect of a man who will pack up his family and move to the far side of the globe, and learn a new language, especially one with no Indo-European base, all for the sake of the great commission. I also understand that being a district president is not easy, and thank him for that service to this great church body.
However, I have some misgivings about this particular paper. Almost from the first line I began to have questions. From the moment he used apostle in reference to Jesus Christ. I imagine he used that unusual language to grab a reader’s attention. As he explains the use of the term in regards to Christ it is true enough. Though, I remember thinking one might lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ is that self same living God of whom Rev. Newton says he is an apostle. I thought I might also be a little picky and don’t mean to dispute over this. As it is true Christ’s Father did send him.
What I want to do is join Rev. Newton in the fraternal conversation regarding the place of our theology of Christ’s mission to seek and to save the lost and how what He is about in this world informs our practice as orthodox Lutherans. As I too personally love our synod, and want her to remain faithful to her Lord and Savior, which is why I shudder, when I read statements that say a revitalized congregation is one that “is regularly and consistently making new disciples, who make new disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Why? Not that I think making new disciples regularly and consistently is a bad thing. I don’t. I regularly work toward making this a goal by using whatever means available to proclaim the Gospel in my community. I have a problem with this statement because it sounds as if we have control over the power of the Holy Spirit and what he is going to do. We don’t. We have no control over the Holy Spirit, we have a charge from him to proclaim the gospel. He will do what he wants to do, where and when he pleases. So I do what I do have control over. That is, I devote myself to prayer and the word, and proclaim it where and when I can. Because I share Rev. Newton’s concern to be faithful to the Great Commission.
Rev. Newton seeks to answer two questions in this paper “(1) Is the call for Christians to participate in Christ’s mission to reach the lost law or Gospel? (2) is accounting for whether or not a given pastor and congregation are actually reaching the lost Law or Gospel?” As Rev. Newton observes, “any question concerning law and gospel concerns both our salvation in Christ… and our motivation for and ability to serve Christ in His Kingdom.” Yet, we come to different answers for both questions, or perhaps we are talking past each other.
Rev. Newton shares his concern with us that there are people in this synod who do not consider the great commission to be the top priority. I understand and share that concern. This is not a paper that wants to find a way of letting pastors off the hook in regard to this task, one they voluntarily took upon themselves with the conference of a stole. I don’t care what their reasoning is. This is the task the church has, it is one that we need to be engaged in accomplishing. Yet I think sometimes this gets all the press, and actually it is not the lost out there, but the lost, hurt and starving inside the church that are neglected. There is a balance that needs to be struck in the work of a pastor. Christ has entrusted us with sheep that we are to feed. We need to feed them and care for them. If we can’t take care of those we already have, why should Christ bring more into our care? If our sheep are starving, broken, and otherwise hurt, why would another sheep want to join our fold?
My pastoral experience is admittedly short, especially in comparison to Rev. Newton. I have had one congregation and have been here for five years, God willing many more. I say that because I have grown to love these sheep in my care. It is a small congregation that has had its ups and downs over the years, lots of downs. I remember when I first came to this congregation the elders told me they wanted to see the congregation grow. I told them that I did too, more than anything. I wanted to see this congregation which a few months before entertained the question of closing doors, gain some stability, and grow. I knew my first task had to be the sheep already in my care. There would be no growth numerically or otherwise in this congregation until I had made them my first priority. It has become my firm conviction over the years that caring for the sheep, the members in the congregation you have is part and parcel of reaching the lost. I disagree with anyone that would throw up any dichotomy between the two. The Missouri Synod has always known this. Pastoral care is possibly the greatest contribution we can give to other church bodies. In carrying for those we have, we reach out to the lost. As we throw life lines to the lost, we dare not lose those that are in the boat already. Quite frankly, we don’t leave the ninety nine to the wolves as we go looking for the one. Only when the ninety nine are safe and secure, can we venture out to look for the one that is lost.
Newton ends his preface with a caveat that no one gets Law and Gospel completely right. This provides the bridge to the next portion of the paper. It may be a prophetic statement, but it should not be an excuse to not try to get it completely right. And we should not have to qualify our sermons with such statements. Thankfully the Holy Spirit can work despite even our best efforts to muddle his word.
Rev. Newton attempts to answer the first question by answering Gospel. That is he answers the question: Is the call for Christians to participate in Christ’s mission Law or Gospel? He answers Gospel. He does so by comparing it to the way the question is normally asked. Is the call to obey the Great Commission Law or Gospel? Presumably the second one has stronger law language and therefore gets the answer law. I don’t care if the language is strong or weak. Law is Law regardless. Watered down law is still law, and it might be more effective and accomplish its job better if it wasn’t cut. Whether we are asked to participate, or told to obey, I don’t care. I maintain that it is law. Furthermore, it is good law. There is nothing wrong with law. It doesn’t save, that is true. But nonetheless it is good. Labeling something law is not license to ignore it. Labeling Law as Gospel does not make it gospel, or more palatable. We are not antinomians here that we need to be afraid of the law. Drink it straight up, and chase it with the Gospel. I recommend serving it straight too. Don’t try to cut it with the Gospel. When God invites, asks or tells us to do something, No is always an answer that brings guilt, and condemnation. When I ask my son to do something he is not so naïve to think he really has a choice. When I invite him to the supper table he knows to be there. When God asks me to do something, I am equally inclined to realize I don’t have a choice in the matter, no matter how polite the language.
The confusion continues as he says the Great Commission was given to Christ, and neither the disciples, pastors, or the church. He says this because the Father has given Christ the authority. And somehow this makes Christ’s command to the disciples to go make disciples Gospel. I don’t see it. Christ still commands his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Who has the authority is not really the question, as he conveys the authority to make disciples to the disciples as he commands them to do so. Christ sends us so that we might bring him to others. We could not do that if he had not given us the authority to speak in His name. Speaking in the name of God is not something to be taken lightly, even when you have been given the authority to do so. Woe to him who does so without having the authority to do so. Who am I to forgive sins without God’s authorization?
I would agree with Rev. Newton when he tells us that “if we want to remain faithful to God’s word in its entirety then, the Gospel must include not only His death and resurrection, but also his proclamation to the world of what his death and resurrection procured.” But exactly who disagrees with that. I might only if he means that the gospel must include the Command to proclaim. Unfortunately I get that vibe in the paper. The command is a command is law, even if the command is to proclaim the gospel. And I have no problem with that God’s word is comprised of both Law and Gospel. Being faithful to God’s word in its entirety then, means to proclaim both Law and Gospel. Are we so afraid of the law that we can no longer call it such?
I get this vibe from statements further on like “our participation in Christ’s mission is an essential aspect of our inheritance in the Gospel, one for us to receive embrace cherish, and invest with the hoe and plan of increase.” It may be an essential part of our life as Christians, but lets not make the gospel dependent on our participation in the proclamation of it. The Gospel as I understand it, is that by which I am saved; Romans 1:16 (ESV) “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. “ If our participation in Christ’s mission is an essential aspect of our inheritance in the Gospel, then the Gospel is dependent on me. I can’t read the statement any other way. What if I don’t participate? What then?
I don’t disagree that God uses those he has saved, those he has brought to faith in his “economy of salvation” to reach others with the Gospel. But the language used is dangerous. It leaves me with the question of whether or not I am saved because I didn’t leave a chick tract on the coffee table with my tip. I don’t wear T-shirts that identify me as a Christian. I don’t go out of my way to share the gospel with my next door neighbor. If my participation is essential to the gospel, how much do I have to participate?
Yet, I don’t know of any Christians who don’t participate in the proclamation of the Gospel. Oh I’m sure I have members in my congregation who haven’t directly shared the Gospel with their neighbors in a longtime. Perhaps they haven’t even given them an overt invitation to come to church. Christians have different gifts. I have a friend that seems to be able to bring a man to Christ by saying hi. I’m not that person. Though I do share the gospel it doesn’t always work that way for me. I’m envious. I have members who are shy, and so on. We live in a hostile environment, the fact that you don’t show up to the ward on Sunday is enough to black mark your children at school. But since I have been here in Tooele for five years the congregation has grown, we have had converts from all walks of life, denominations, and religions for that matter. It is wonderful. The congregation thinks I do it. Sometimes I think I do it. But I know it is the Holy Spirit using me. On those days we rejoice with angels. But the Holy Spirit isn’t using me alone. He uses the congregation. The congregation makes it possible for me to do the work. The congregation pays for the Church building that stands as a testament of faith to the community day in and day out. Evangelism is a team effort. We all have different gifts. Not all of us are hands or feet, not all of us are eyes, or ears. Nor do we all do the same thing, but we all work to reach the lost. I have members that feel guilty that they can’t make some of the meetings or do more around the church. That is a shame. The real problem is they don’t realize how much they actually do do.
Rev. Newton’s language gets sloppier, when he says “we entered into Christ’s commission by our baptism into his death and resurrection. It wasn’t given to us. Rather we entered into it was we entered into Christ. It is inseparable from our being found in Christ…. We were baptized into Christ and His mission for the world when we were baptized into his death and resurrection. What parts of Christ do we choose and what parts of Christ do we not choose? I choose the reconciled to God part. I choose the eternal life part. I choose the heaven part. But I do not choose being called priest to the nations. I do not choose the cross. I do not choose participating with Christ’s commission from his Father. You can see how impossible this idea is.” Yes I can see how impossible this idea is, as I see how impossible it is that I chose any of it to begin with. I always thought it was Christ who chose me, took me, and made me alive in him. If it came to us in baptism then, it was given to us. No two ways about it. Baptism is a gift. Christ baptizes us into his death and resurrection and gives us life there. We are not the movers in Baptism, it is not a covenant we make with God. It is God making a promise to us. It is there he forgives us our sins. And he does not make that forgiveness dependent on us evangelizing. He even forgives our fear that would stop our mouths when we want to speak.
And it doesn’t change when you start talking about obeying the gospel. Yes I know English translations use that language. 2 Thes. 1:8 (ESV) “in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” But the translation doesn’t make sense. It turns the Gospel into a list of rules we have to follow if we want to be saved, rather than the free gift of God. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,” Ephes. 2:8 (ESV) “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.  But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” (Romans 11:5-6(ESV) It is my understanding that the word upakuo would better be translated listen, as a distinction from merely hearing and rejecting. The Gospel is first and foremost news, news that is good. Rules are not news. Rules are rules. The breaking of a rule, or a law, might make the news, but it is rarely good news. If the Gospel is good news then it is the reporting of an event, that event can be nothing more than the death and resurrection of Christ. The fact that my sins are forgiven is news worthy of being called good. That God wants me to do something hardly qualifies even as news much less good. Likelihood has it I have not done what he wants me to do, or have not done it to his property. So no, we don’t obey his call to salvation, we hear it and it makes us alive. We are incapable of obeying anything when we are dead. (Ephesians 2:1 ff.)
The paper then turns into law mode as Newton informs us we are thieves for not having shared the gospel with our neighbors. Good. He is absolutely right here. I am a thief in this regard. Oh I have shared the gospel with some, but definitely not all. And the Gospel is theirs. God wants them to have it. I tell you I was cut to the heart here. The Law here is superb, and I plan to use this analogy myself someday. But don’t call me a thief and leave me hanging. Now you are robbing me of what is mine, the forgiveness of sins. Don’t leave me to bite the dust when you have slain me with such law. For Christ’s sake give me the gospel! If we can’t learn to give the gospel to each other in the church, how can we give it to others? If we are not forgiven ourselves, how can we forgive others? If we go down this road it will indeed be terrible for us in the LCMS because we will not have learned from the example of the nation of Israel. Our eyes will be focused on nothing but law, and we will use it to slay each other, and we will have nothing with which to bring each other back to life, and build each other up. It is for this reason that we need to be able to distinguish the purest Gospel, and keep it pure without letting any aspect of the law to come into play there! If something is purest Gospel, then there is no aspect of law there by definition! Rev. Newton is absolutely right. I am uncomfortable here, and I should be. He has given me law. And Newton sees that this law is valuable. “It drives us to repentance” what the law does not do is drive us to trust in the atoning sacrifice of the Lord. Not unless that gospel is proclaimed to those who have just heard the law. Where there is gospel then the law does drive one to cling to it in faith. But I have just heard that the gospel is dependent on me spreading the gospel. I have yet to hear that Christ has forgiven me for not doing this! The law does not “raise us again to be His treasured people, a holy nation, a divine priesthood for the world.” Only the Gospel does that, and I haven’t heard it yet, not in this paper.
Rev. Newton now changes to that second question. The one about accountability structures regarding seeking and saving the lost, and finds it strange that these would be considered law. As He thinks it is neither Law nor Gospel. His reasoning is that accountability structures, are simply a God given component in our faithful stewardship of the Gospel. He then cites Luke 16, Matthew 24, and Matthew 25, and quotes 1 Corinthians 3, and Romans 14. Am I to believe that because it is in the Bible it can’t be law? I always thought the clearest expression of law were found in the Bible.
The question isn’t whether or not we find accountability in the Bible or not. That isn’t my issue anyway. Neither is the issue even whether or not accountability is law or not. It is. I don’t care if you do find it in a Gospel such as Matthew or Luke, Christ spoke both Law and Gospel. Neither am I afraid to give account to God for the stewardship of the Gospel. I’ll rest my case on the cross there too for my failures in this department.
What has everybody uptight is that we should be held accountable for this to other men, and be judged by their standards of what is proper or not. Whether or not we have been sharing the gospel enough or not. I don’t want to be held accountable to another man for how many people I have shared the Gospel with this week. This is the issue.
Rev. Newton Tells us that Accounting for us reaching the lost with the Gospel only becomes legalistic when we use it to promote ourselves as deserving God’s favor or to condemn ourselves, believing God’s favor is not for us, or when we account for the wrong things. How can we not use it for this? I’m already tempted to puff myself up when I have one person join the church. I condemn myself every time I think about the people I haven’t shared with. There are larger questions. If I am accountable to you for this, what happens when I don’t do it to your satisfaction? Call it business practice if you want. Buisness practice has laws too. Call it what you want it is law. A rose is a rose no matter what you call it.
Can we account for where and to whom we preach the Gospel? I don’t know that we can. I have a call to Tooele UT. I preach here. God has called me to preach here. I never pass on an opportunity to preach elsewhere. But my call is to Tooele. I preach to those I can preach too. I share the gospel with everyone I can here, when opportunities present themselves here. But I’m not a farmer who gets to choose where to plant the grain. God has called me to this field and told me to plant his gospel in this field.
I account for a low harvest. At least I believe it is low, in human terms it does not compare to what some pastors in other areas are doing. I do ask myself if there is more I can do. I write in the News Paper, I give Bible Studies at jail. I don’t see a harvest from that. Should I stop? And Do what? Maybe it is for me to plant and others to harvest? I search for Mars Hill. And other Pastors I know have their hands full just trying to keep track of the sheep they have. Should they allow those to starve? Sometimes I have the same problem. But I am proud of the meager harvest I have. I rejoice in the few.
If accounting is “to lead us to repentance, that is, a changing of one’s mind about something” then, it must be law. Law leads to repentance. Law is good, repentance is good. But not all laws are good. Man makes many bad laws. And I don’t know that it my choice to decide how, where, and when I proclaim the Gospel. This is what worries me. Many things people employ to get people to the church on Sunday actually undercut the Gospel and the word of God, trivialize it and so forth.
I’m not sure when it was that going to church was a cultural habit for non-christians. Perhaps that was the case when I was younger. Though, I remember many a dad taking his son fishing. I remember being jealous of that when I would see the mom show up alone. I wanted to go fishing with my dad on a Sunday morning. Didn’t work out. He had to work, planting the seed. I guess I always assumed though that those who were at church and confessed to be Christian, (they weren’t their for their nieces baptism) were Christian. Who am I to judge another persons heart? Is it possible they were hypocrites? Sure. That is still possible today. I try not to second guess a person’s confession though. Can those who do not know Christ take the first steps of faith and seek Christ out? No they can’t take the first steps of faith. They can for whatever reason decide to go to church on Sunday. It is not the same thing. They are as helpless to take the first steps of faith as we are to choose to participate in the Great Commission. We have free will when it comes to temporal things like whether or not we are going to go to church, or plant an apple tree. I in no way mean to imply that we should not seek out other opportunities to proclaim the Gospel.
I however am reluctant to think we need an accountability structure for this in the Synod. I rarely think law is the answer to these questions. Leadership might be preferable. Encouragement might be nice. The last thing synod needs is more rules, more structures, more accountability. We can’t manage what we have on the plate right now. District presidents and Synodical officers have been increasingly forfeiting their offices and not accounting for pure doctrine and practice in the pastors under their care since the “Statement of the 44.” Perhaps if the officers did what has already been entrusted to them we would be growing. But we have a mishmash of doctrine and practice happening everywhere. It is getting harder and harder to know whether you are going to go to a Lutheran Church or an American Evangelical Church on Sunday morning while on vacation. The sign outside, and the LCMS logo in the yellow pages no longer help in that regard. It would help if district presidents made sure the Gospel was being preached in our pulpits before they ask for authority to oversee that it is being preached elsewhere. If it was being preached in our pulpits I think people would actually come to hear it.
Seeking and saving the lost is not missing from the ordination vows. It may be only implied in the right itself. But the Bible and the BOC Do not merely imply it. We take out oaths to those. They provided good objectives standards with which pastors and district presidents can do their job. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16 (ESV) so if you see a pastor neglecting his duties use them. But if they won’t listen to scripture, don’t think they are going to be inclined to listen to a Synodical resolution. Why do we put more trust in the laws of men then in the word of God? Why do we trust the law more than the Gospel.
The synod has problems. Many. Laws are not going to save us. The Gospel, Justification by faith alone in Christ alone is the article upon which we stand. If we are faltering then we ought to look back to it. So that we can begin to build on that again, the foundation the apostles laid for us. Proclaim it. Your sins are forgiven, even yours Rev. Robert Newton. I’ve been harsh with you in this paper, I don’t relish that, but I can’t keep my mouth shut when it comes to these things either.