How Long, O Lord?
I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
As believers in Christ, God promises us some wonderful things. He says that for those who love him, all things work together for good (Rom 8:28), that he will graciously give us everything we ask for in faith (Rom 8:32), that God will do whatever we ask him in his Son’s name (Jn 14:13), and that though we will face many troubles, the Lord delivers us out of them all (Ps 34:19).
Sometimes, though, these promises are hard to believe. Our lives are full of all kinds of troubles: failing health, financial hardship, broken families, and the shadow of death. We would love for the Lord to deliver us from these troubles now. When we’re children we expect instant gratification. If there’s a problem, we want it fixed immediately. If we want something, we want it right now. I am noticing in the third decade of my life that adults still want instant solutions to problems. If your car has a problem, it can be taken to the mechanic, fixed and taken home the same day but we aren’t cars. As we get older, we begin to learn that not all our troubles have quick fixes. There are some troubles that call for endurance over the long haul, be it lifelong therapy, never-ending hard work, or the continual struggle we have with our own demons. God does not always grant us instant gratification.
Nevertheless, God will act on his promises! We are called to delay gratification, though. The Lord will deliver the righteous out of all their troubles! When we come to our last day, we will then pass from this life to the joys of Paradise where there will be rest from all trouble. As we come to the end of another church year, we are also mindful that God promises something even beyond heaven! The end of all trouble is coming. Jesus will return and on that day, everything will be set right again. Because of Christ’s promise, we can honestly say that everything is going to be okay.
In the meantime, as we continue the fight, our Lord promises to give us what we need to stand up under the attacks of the evil one. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps 34:18). As Luther reminds us in his great hymn, “[Christ] is by our side upon the plain, with His good gifts and Spirit.” In the midst of trouble, we have much to be thankful for as we await the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.
See you in church,
Why Be A Lutheran?
By this time, you might be thinking, “I’m so sick of all this talk about the Reformation. Why does it even matter?” We’ve been dredging up Luther quotes, retelling the story of his life and how the Protestant Reformation began, and planning all sorts of special events to commemorate this 500th year since the posting of the 95 theses. But what difference does it all make? 500 years later, why is the Reformation (specifically the Lutheran Reformation) still relevant? And what has enabled the Lutheran Church to endure for five centuries and counting? In the following article, a former Baptist reflects on why he left his denomination to become a Lutheran. My intent in sharing this is not to disrespect other Christians but to remind us of the vast pile of treasure we sit on as heirs of Luther’s theology.
Here is the article by Rev. John Frasier of Holy Trinity Lutheran, La Grange, KY:
Our decision to leave the Baptist tradition and join the Lutheran church was not an easy one. It has been a source of disappointment for some of our family and our friends. It was a long process of discussion and debate with both Baptists and Lutherans. Ultimately, we are convinced that Lutheran distinctives are more faithful to Scripture and the necessary inference of Scripture than are Baptist distinctives, Most of the disagreement that I came to have with Baptist doctrine centered primarily on baptism and tangentially the Lord’s Supper. Still, there are numerous reasons beyond the sacraments for which I became a Lutheran, and Emily and I have spent much time discussing our reasons. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far…
Confessional Lutherans are clear that the test of our worship is, “Is it Christ-driven?” Is Christ exalted in our midst while we are abased? Though it is so common to the point of being cliché for Christians to speak of being “Christ-centered,” Lutheran theology makes a careful distinction that I find to be absent in most other forms of Christian theology. Lutherans distinguish between being faith-centered and being Christ-centered. Much of what passes for Christ-centered is really faith-centered. What Christ will do for us is often said to depend on the greatness of our faith. When talk of assurance of salvation ultimately comes to focus on the question “How do I know I have faith?” or “What is the evidence in my Christian living that I am saved?” one can be sure that the power of one’s faith has become the center and taken priority over Christ.
We must not gather together to celebrate our faith but to celebrate Christ as the object of our faith and to receive the grace he gives to renew and increase our faith.
Liturgy, sacraments, and absolution, and the preached Word all come together in Lutheran worship to more highly exalt Christ than worship services where I have seen these absent in some measure, or where they only have significance in proportion to the strength of our faith. The Baptist view of baptism, for example, exalts the power of faith to make Baptism real rather than exalting the power of God in baptism to make faith real.
Perhaps more significant for me than any other Lutheran distinctive is the Lutheran theology of the sacraments. If I had to present a single reason why I am Lutheran, it would be the sacraments. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are for the weak. I need the sacraments because I am weak. I need what the sacraments give. In the sacraments I have “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.” In preaching, baptism, and the Eucharist [the Lord’s Supper], the Word of God comes to me, and in the Eucharist the whole person of Christ is present and given for me. This is certainly the most difficult pill of Lutheran doctrine for other Protestants to swallow. Yet, the theology of the sacraments is far too vital for the life of Lutheran churches to be downplayed. The sacraments are means of grace by which the work of Christ is further mediated to us.
A theology of sacraments, however, is not optional for any denomination. When we reject those means of grace which God has identified, we substitute them with makeshift sacraments of our own device. Whether it is speaking in tongues, raising hands in worship, “personal devotions/quiet time”, evangelistic invitations/altar calls, churches are constantly building up extra-biblical sacraments by which they believe God dispenses grace. Luther sees this as a consequence of sin. Luther writes: “Such is the deplorable perversity of our nature that we do not keep what God commands or value it highly; but whatever the devil commands, this we receive and observe [with] the utmost eagerness and deference; we erect altars, chapels, churches; we run to Rome and to St. James. But meanwhile we slight Baptism, the Eucharist, absolution, and our calling (Martin Luther, Luther’s Works 4: 179). To be Christ-centered is to be sacrament-centered (though the reverse is not necessarily true). That’s why it is so important to receive all sinners to the Lord’s Table, yet maintain a close-communion because many people may not acknowledge the same faith and understanding of the sacraments. If we want Christ alone, then we must seek him in those means which God has chosen that he be found and not places of our own invention.
Baptists, (including many other evangelicals) have always relished the fact that the pulpit is in the center of their platform because it “pictorializes” their belief in the centrality of preaching. Many Lutheran churches, however, have their pulpit to the side of the chancel to make room for the altar and the lectern. This arrangement of ecclesiastical furniture is not by accident. For a confessional Lutheran church, Christ himself must take precedence. Furthermore, with the lectern in balance with the pulpit, we visually convey that the reading of Scripture and the public confession of faith is no less important than the preaching of God’s Word. A church without a formal liturgy is too dependent on the preaching of one person. Where the preaching is clear, biblical, and instructional, a high dependence on one person’s preaching is, of course, less problematic. But preaching that fits this description is far too uncommon in churches, and even the best preachers are prone to idiosyncrasies, tangents and weaknesses. Liturgy can guard us against all of this. Where liturgy is present, it guarantees that people will hear and confess the Word of God even when preaching is unsound and weak.
Traditional liturgy unifies the Church, present and past. Traditional liturgy keeps us from an individualistic, “my needs/my feelings first” spirituality that thinks only of a vertical relationship between us and God. Liturgy connects us to the heavenly worship of saints and angels. This is most clearly seen in confession/absolution, the Sanctus, and service of the sacraments. It’s true that liturgy can become repetitious and lifeless, but that’s no reason to fault the liturgy. Any activity in the church has this potential. Still, even in cases where the recitation loses its passion, liturgy is still advantaged, since what is confessed in the liturgy remains true and calls us to rejoice in the truth.
Though liturgy is closely related to creeds and historic confessions, liturgy may, however, be modern and does not necessarily indicate the confession of a historic expression of faith. For this reason, confessional Lutheran churches place a great deal of importance on historic creeds and celebrating theological heritage. The Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed are all included in the Lutheran confessional documents known collectively as The Book of Concord. These historic documents along with the rest of the Lutheran confessions (Augsburg Confession, Small/Large Catechisms, Smalcald Articles, Formula of Concord), identify the theology of Lutheranism and unite confessing Lutherans around more than simply a particular view of baptism.
Though there are numerous aspects to Christian liberty, I’ll look only at one matter that relates to this subject. For years I have disagreed with the common Baptist practice of prohibition of alcoholic beverages. However, I simply considered the reasons that Baptists offer to be an isolated point in Baptist theology. I now see prohibition as a serious feature of contemporary evangelical Baptist theology. Though prohibition is not part of historic Baptist practice, the fact remains that most contemporary Baptists themselves do not consider it an isolated point but instead treat it as integral to proper Christian living. Martin Luther considered alcoholic beverage to be a gift from God which should not be despised. Today, Lutherans likewise see that we may rightly enjoy all gifts of God, but that we must not abuse them. Drunkenness is only one of the ways to abuse God’s gift of alcohol. Despising it and naming it as a sin is the other. It is not only true that one is free to drink alcohol, rather one should be careful that in not partaking one does not despise what God has called good (Psalm 104:15). Whatever other reasons that a person may have for not consuming, believing that it is a sin to drink must not be, among them.
I’ve found that many evangelicals are unaware of what it means to be a Lutheran. Though there is much more that could be said, I think that I’ve summarized the major distinctives of Lutheran doctrine and practice (at least within the LCMS). For further explanation on what it means to be Lutheran, I recommend Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord, Lutheranism 101, and Daniel Preus’s Why I Am a Lutheran: Jesus at the Center [all available from Concordia Publishing House].
Here we still stand,
In Solus Christus,
Wearing Your Sunday Best
“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” Matthew 22:11-14
There was a time when it was the norm for the American family to be in church every Sunday. And you wouldn’t go to church without putting on your “Sunday best,” that is, your nicest set of clothes. Church was not just something ordinary but it was something special that called for the jacket and tie, dress and hat.
One of our dear saints, Jeanette, used to tell me stories about her childhood. Every Sunday before the family left for church, her father would make sure all the children’s shoes were shined, clothes were clean, and hair was neat. You had to pass dad’s inspection before you could leave the house! My pastor back on Long Island is from that generation too. He preferred not to see dirty sneakers peeking out the bottom of his acolytes’ robes. I would normally wear slacks and a button down shirt to church but I remember coming to worship one hot summer evening dressed more casually. On the way out of church, Pastor Froehlich gave me a startled look and said (jokingly), “Shorts Johnny?!”
I think there’s something to be said for the old-school approach of dressing your best for church. On the other hand, we want to avoid snobbery. After all, it is more important for people to be in church than to be dressed up. People often remind me, “We don’t need to impress God.” It’s true. “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
But does God care what we wear to his house? Jesus actually tells a parable about wearing proper attire to “a wedding feast,” which stands for the kingdom of God (Matt 22:2). One guest tried to get in without a wedding garment and the king had him tied up and tossed out! Evidently there is a dress code for the Kingdom! Where are we to find clothing fit for God’s banquet? In ancient Jewish culture, it was customary for the host of a wedding banquet to provide his guests with wedding garments. Christians, too, have been invited to Christ’s banquet and God has provided us with garments to wear. We actually “wear” Christ himself. Scripture tells us, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27). Our baptismal liturgy also reminds us, “Receive this white garment to show that you have been clothed with the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers all your sin” (LSB 271).
Coming to church is something special. It’s God’s house and I think it is perfectly appropriate to dress in a way that shows respect for God’s presence and the occasion. We also come here comfortably as members of God’s household. No matter how you dress for church though, you are already wearing that pure garment, washed white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). As long as we are baptized, we are always wearing “our Sunday best.”
See you in church,
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
– Hebrews 10:24-25
The following is meant to be ridiculous. I kindly ask that nobody file heresy charges against me and I sincerely ask forgiveness if this borders on the blasphemous. Here it is: my recent conversation with the Lord:
Jesus: Wow Pastor Jon, wasn’t that was a great service? I certainly feel glorified. I hope you all enjoyed the meal. That was really my body and blood, you know! Well, see ya in September!
Pastor Jon: Wait! Where are you going, Jesus?
JC: Oh, didn’t you know? Summer is here. In the summertime I like to take a break from work.
PJ: Sure, everyone likes to take a little time off in the summer but aren’t you still going to come to church?
JC: Silly Pastor! Church is work for me! Sure, it’s refreshing for all of you. You come here for Divine Service. The “Divine” one is me. I’m the one who is doing all the serving around here. When you come to church, all you have to do is sit back and receive. I have to forgive sins. I have to help you preach. Let me tell you, that in itself is enough to keep me busy full time, Pastor Jon! I have to help the people stay attentive to my Words. I have to host a meal. I have to bestow my blessing. It can all get pretty exhausting. I am also fully human, after all. So, why would I show up to work on my vacation?
PJ: Hm. I guess I never thought about summer break from your perspective Jesus. I thought you never took a vacation from, uh…Savioring. What are we supposed to do while you’re gone?
JC: I think you can manage without me for a few weeks. Of course receiving forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation from me in church is a wonderful and comforting thing but I have been assured that you can do just fine without that for a while.
PJ: Lord, I don’t mean to question your credibility but where on earth did you hear that?
JC: I snuck out of church during the sermon last week…just for a few minutes! I saw one of your members at a Memorial Day barbecue. He told me he didn’t need to be in church over the summer. He said he had an “understanding” with my Father and that everything was fine between him and God.
PJ: But Jesus, didn’t you say, ‘I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.’ And didn’t you also tell us that nobody comes to the Father except through you? Wouldn’t we be spiritually dead without you?
JC: Absolutely! ‘Abide’ is one of my favorite words! It means ‘stick close to.’ The very best way to stick with me is to gather with my body the Church and be fed with my Words, my flesh, and my blood. But it sounds like some of your church members have made up their minds already. They’ve found their own way of ‘abiding’ without me. So, as long as I’m not needed at St. Paul, you can catch me at the lake. Have a great summer, Pastor!
Thank God our Savior does not take vacations from being our Good Shepherd. May we never take a vacation from being his sheep. The Lord abides.
See you in church (we have services all summer long),
Kenyan Bishop Joseph Omolo to Return to St. Paul
Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.
Every once in a while we need to be reminded like the prophet Elijah that we aren’t alone. We Christians, especially of the Confessional Lutheran type, can easily feel outnumbered in our increasingly secular society. Missouri Synod Lutherans may seem strange and quaint but we are not alone in the world. There is a remnant chosen by grace of faithful Christians who still hold that the Scriptures are God’s Word, completely trustworthy and true.
While the complete number of true believers is invisible, known only to God, we still have visible connections to partner churches around the world, which also hold to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Since the day of Pentecost, the Church of Christ has been “catholic,” that is, universal, able to take root in every land, culture, and language.
This month, we will have the privilege of hosting one of those global partners. Most Rev. Joseph Omolo is a bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya (ELCK), one of our church’s 38 partner churches. He and his wife Ruth also lead an organization called Hope for the Destitute, which provides housing for widows and orphans as well as Christian education.
St. Paul hosted the bishop and Ruth briefly in July of 2015. Since then, the Women of St. Paul have raised funds to build 4 homes for impoverished widows in Kenya. Bishop Joseph and Ruth are returning to the U.S. in May to maintain connections with supporting congregations. This time, they will be in Dubuque for a weekend! Bishop Omolo will be preaching for us May 27 and 28. He and Ruth will also give a presentation after church on the 28th. Don’t miss it!
See you in Church,
Unless a Grain of Wheat
“Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” –Jesus Christ, John 12:24
As we transition from winter into spring, nature pauses between death and renewal. We are seeing some warmer days but still waiting for winter’s browns and grays to give way to the vibrant colors of new growth. The Lent-Easter cycle reflects nature’s themes of death and renewal. These themes are especially evident to me this year.
Because of sin, the curse of death falls upon us all (Rom 6:23). The old is indeed passing away. We have recently seen the passing of several faithful members of our congregation who were each pivotal figures in their families, communities, and at St. Paul. In addition, we have come to the conclusion of a chapter of our history with our outgoing music director. For many of us, in various ways, this is a difficult period of transition between grief and joy; between brokenness and restoration. This is really a picture of the human condition. We are broken creatures who have been half-fixed: completely forgiven and restored by Jesus Christ but still waiting for him to make all things new (Rev. 21:5).
That renewal is the great hope we have. Christ’s death bears much fruit, as those who trust in him will also conquer death. As we mourn in these transitional times, we are also free to rejoice. As we lay Christians to rest, we are grateful that God has “kept them safe and secure in the holy ark of the Christian Church” as was prayed at their baptisms. That ark has finally carried them to safe haven. So with our congregation, there may be vacancies on the organ bench, on the Board of Properties, and in the pews; there is plenty of brown and gray but spring is coming.
More than ever, we are poised for renewal as we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s Resurrection this year. Our Board of Mission & Ministry got off to a great and optimistic start with Mark Litka holding the first meeting in March. There is great enthusiasm as we explore possibilities for the future of music ministry at St. Paul. The Holy Spirit has been bringing a steady trickle of new faces through the doors and we are ready and waiting to see what kind of fruit Christ will grow in us this spring!
See you in Church,
Don’t Be a Lazy Belly this Lent!
(Read Your Catechism)
Therefore, I beg such lazy bellies and presumptuous saints, for God’s sake, to let themselves be convinced and believe that they are not really and truly such learned and exalted doctors as they think…Even if their knowledge of the catechism were perfect (although that is impossible in this life), yet it is highly profitable and fruitful to read it daily and to make it the subject of meditation and conversation. In such reading, conversation, and meditation the Holy Spirit is present and bestows ever new and greater light and devotion, so that it tastes better and better and is digested, as Christ also promises in Matthew 18:20, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
–Martin Luther, Preface to the Large Catechism
To be Lutheran is not to be part of a cult of Martin Luther, as some might think. Lutherans are orthodox (rightly-teaching), evangelical (Gospel-centered), and catholic (part of the historic and universal Christian church). Luther and the other reformers did not set out to create a new religion. Being Lutheran is simply being a Christian. When you read Luther’s Small Catechism, Large Catechism, and the other writings in the Book of Concord, you will find that they do not invent anything new. They bring us back to what God has always taught in His Word. We hold to these Lutheran Confessions because they correctly interpret the Bible for us. This Lent, I invite you to dig a little deeper into the rich heritage that belongs to you as an orthodox evangelical catholic Christian.
- You can start with Luther’s Small Catechism. It isn’t just for kids. Luther intended it to be a lifelong tool for living the Christian life. It was specifically designed for use in the home.
- If you want something a little more advanced, I would suggest reading through the Large Catechism. Luther wrote this longer set of instructions for pastors but it is a very practical guide for laity and clergy alike. I would highly recommend it, especially if you’ve never read it before. It is surprisingly easy to read and still very much relevant after almost 500 years!
- If you want more bang for your buck, I’d suggest purchasing a copy of “Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions.” It is a reader’s edition of the Book of Concord, which contains all of the officially accepted doctrinal writings of the Lutheran Church, including the Small and Large Catechisms. No Lutheran home would be complete without at least a Bible, a Hymnal, and a Small Catechism but if you really want to appreciate Lutheranism, the Book of Concord is also a “must.”
- You can get the Book of Concord in print at CPH.org or online at bookofconcord.org. Happy Reading!
See you in Church,
“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God…” -Ephesians 6:12-13
According to the Bible, there are only two classes of spiritual beings apart from God himself. There is first a great army of angels of unknown number. These angels are also called the host of heaven. This is what it means when we refer to God as Lord of hosts. He is commander of the armies of heaven. At some point after the creation of the world, one third of these angels followed Satan into rebellion (Rev. 12:4) and have come to be known as fallen angels or demons.
There are no ghosts (Hebrews 9:27), vampires, or zombies. If you hear a story about someone’s dead relative appearing to them, beware! If they weren’t hallucinating, they may have seen an angel or demon. Satan and his demons can disguise themselves as “angels of light” (2 Cor 11:14).
The war against the devil and his servants has already been decisively won. Jesus’ passion was the time when Satan, the “ruler of this world,” was cast out (John 12:31). The devil and his angels still seek to undermine our faith as they await their final judgment. So, in the mean time, here are some tips on how to banish the devil from your presence:
- Avoid inviting the devil into your life –engaging in non-Christian “spiritual activities” or regularly avoiding worship may provide the devil a way into your life.
- Laugh – the devil can’t stand Christians expressing their “Easter joy”!
- Make the sign of the cross – the devil hates the cross because it will forever remind him of his defeat and God’s love for you.
- Seek the company of other Christians – being alone can give the devil ripe opportunity for temptation.
- Confess your sins (and receive forgiveness) – the devil thrives on a guilty conscience. He is rendered powerless where sins are forgiven and guilt removed.
- Break wind – The devil does not like to be mocked. Martin Luther once said, “I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”
See you in Church,
Lutherans for Life
This month, we will join with many other congregations in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in an observance of “Sanctity of Human Life” Sunday on January 15. We will be focusing on life issues for the month of January. Our Sunday Morning Bible Study will come from Lutherans for Life, the youth group will be assisting Dubuque County Right to Life, and I would encourage as many as are able to participate in Dubuque’s Walk for Life on Jan. 21.
Being pro-life has indeed become politicized but it is not simply a political issue. It is first a moral issue. There are many issues on which Christians may hold differing opinions in good conscience but God has spoken clearly concerning the time of life’s beginning and ending. Like Luther, our consciences should be “captive to the Word of God.”
Christians should speak about this the way we would about anything else – not only with the force of God’s Law but the sweet comfort of the Gospel. Many mothers suffer under the crushing weight of guilt after having an abortion. While abortion is condemned in God’s Word, Christians should be the first to speak words of healing and forgiveness to those of broken heart. In Christ, there is mercy and forgiveness for every sin, great or small.
See you in Church,