Confusing?

For some Scripture might be confusing. Paul wrote “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Elsewhere Paul writes about we are “saved by grace through faith in Jesus.” Which is it? Actually both. The cause of salvation is what Jesus Christ has done—only. If we have concerns about whether we are saved, we go back to the foundation: Ephesians 2:1″And you were dead in your trespasses and sins.” But Paul continues:

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even
when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)

(Eph 2:4–5 NAS)

So, which is it? Is salvation accomplished and completed in Jesus? Or is salvation still ultimately dependent on us? Note, that the above verse establishes the foundation of salvation—”saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.” Nothing you or I can do will add to that salvation.

But when Paul continues, he addresses how we as Christians live. Does that make a difference? Absolutely. So when he writes: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he is encouraging living in the reality of salvation by grace through faith. As you read all of Philippians 2, you will discover that Paul is encouraging us to live in light of our salvation. We do that by imitating Christ, his attitude, actions, words. Or as Paul writes: “Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).

So Paul is not encouraging Christians to receive all that Christ has done, but when it comes to living out that faith, then we look to ourselves for assurance. Rather, because we are saved, how is that reflected in our living. Do our words reflect who we are “in Christ”? Do our actions demonstrate Christ’s love to others? Do our attitudes initate Christ’s?

We are not left on our own. We have God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, other Christians to encourage, comfort, teach, and support one another. Paul had sent his fellow worker, Epaphroditus, to encourage and support the Christians in Philippi (2:25). And he desires to send Timothy (2:19). Notice how Paul puts everything in perspective. Each Christian is involved in caring for and encouraging one another. But behind it all, there is God.

13 for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing; 15 so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world

Phil. 2:13-15 NAS

The God who saves us gives us everything we need to live out the faith. Is it difficult? Absolutely! At times very difficult. But that is why we live (walk) by faith, not by sight. And that is why God provides other Christians to walk with us. we are saved by grace alone, but we are never saved alone.

Reality, Scripture, Life Application

A sad fact of life today in many Christian churches is that the message is confused: the pastors set the agenda and many people follow. But is that the Church that Jesus established? Is that the Church that Paul describes? Not at all. But the problem is not new with this latest generation of pastors, leaders, and churches.

Paul wrote to his protege, Timothy in his second letter, these sobering, realistic, necessary words:

12 Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:12–17 NAS)

If you believe in Jesus Christ and want to lead a godly life, the expectation is that you will be persecuted—in the church! And the church will not lack for “evil men and imposters” (v. 13). They will not be content with how God describes and desires the church to be, rather as evil men and imposters, they are not only open to deception but they will deceive so that the deterioration of the church will continue. The deceivers will mock, ridicule, and manipulate Christians who hold to the truth.

Paul lays out the path to follow for us as Christians to follow. Notice that Paul does not give “Five easy steps to have a better marriage” nor “How to be successful in life” nor “Love everyone and be open to learn how to explore greater dimensions of spirituality.” Rather, Paul points them back to the basics of the Christian faith centered on Jesus Christ. That means seeing what the Bible says about sin, law, confession, forgiveness, Gospel (what Jesus Christ has done for us and still does for us), namely 2 Tim. 3:14-15.

Paul is not encouraging or promoting “new ways,” rather what has been given in Scripture is sufficient for all time: it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Rather than blazing new trails ahead, Paul is calling Christians back to that which was given by God centuries ago, even before the era of the New Testament.

For pastors and teachers, popularity, latest trends or fashion are not the solutions, and never were. Nor is rewinding the calendar to a “golden age” the answer. Going back to what Scripture taught, what faithful pastors and teachers have proclaimed from Scripture, that will be revolutionary for the church today. And that will be life saving for people and churches as they grow in faith in Jesus Christ. Then not only pastors, but every Christian can rightly “reprove, correct, and train in righteousness, equipped for every good work” for the benefit of the church.

Psalm 103:1–12

This is a special Psalm, that I just feel like sliding into a comfortable chair and breathe, contentedly breathe. But there is so much more.

The Psalm is not only a familiar Psalm, but it opens our eyes to the totality of what God has done for His people. In Psalm 103:1–5, the author highlights the individual aspect of God’s love for his people. In 103:6–12 he focuses upon God’s concern with the community of believers together.

Psalm 103:1 The Psalmist acknowledges that being a person of faith in this God of Israel cannot praise half-heartedly. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; And all that is within me, bless His holy name!” The “soul” and “all that is within me” stresses that there is no medium ground with God. Either we are all in with God, or we are outside of His realm. The Psalmist claims pointedly that with heart and soul, the believer is committed in blessing/praising God for all He has done.

In v. 3, he notes that when we are in that relationship with God, the first aspect means that we do not forget God’s benefits. In the swirl of life, anxiety, pressures, threats to life, we can easily slip into forgetfulness, especially with regard to what God has done for us. Hence the exhortation “And forget not all His benefits.” As an individual believer we are each called to remember, not forgetting what God has done, but refreshing our memory with all that God has done.

The first item of rememberance is “Who forgives all your iniquities.” We live in a sinful world, we are often a tempted, and more than we’d like to admit, we sin. But God… reaches out to forgive us. We need to recall that such is our heritage as people of God. How often we need that reminder. Thank You, Lord.

More remembrances: “Who heals all your diseases, Who redeems your life from destruction, Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies.” I look back at the many times I have been injured and scars to prove it. Even greater is God’s protection in the midst of injuries, diseases that affect all of us. Several times over the past seven decades I am reminded of these “benefits” continually. The phrase “forget not all His benefits” is a call for us to bless God, praise His name, repeatedly, continually.

In 103:6–12 the author now directs our attention to our life together as the people of God, as one people. Some of the statements are looking back to the days of Moses when God delivered the people. “The Lord executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed…” Think of the great Exodus when God sent the plagues to provoke the Egyptians to allow Israel to escape. God not only delivered, He also sustained them with water and food in the wilderness for years.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever
” (vv. 8-9). The Israelites learned about God’s anger against sin. But they also began to learn that God does not retain His anger forever. Rather they learned of His mercy, grace, forgiveness—repeatedly. He futher illustrates this with “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (vv. 11–12). See also Jeremiah 31:34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, “Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

Note that some of these actions of God are seen only in part in present our lives. The key is that forgiveness is foremost in God’s work. That sustains us until Jesus Christ returns and He brings the complete blessing of God’s salvation and deliverance. Today we see glimpses of that, but the day will come when the fullness of what God has accomplished for us will be proclaimed throughout creation. All of these promises are foreshadowed in Psalm 103. What a blessing that we can read, refresh, and remember all of this. May Psalm 103 be part of our memory work, and our proclamation of what God has done, is doing, and will do.

Forgiving myself

Following the post from yesterday about the challenges of forgiving others, today I explore another aspect: forgiving myself. I don’t find much written about that, except quietly in passing comments.

Is forgiving myself helpful/necessary? That might seem like an odd question, but how often have I looked back on a sin I have committed, confessed it as sin, and tried to move forward? But the nagging sin/guilt/shame still remains. This is exactly where Satan finds an open door to create further havoc. He would like nothing more than for Christians to wallow in defeat, discouragement, helplessness regarding forgiven sin.

But God has not left that aspect forgotten. One specific passage related to sin, confession, forgiveness, claims that baptism provides comfort and hope.

And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the body but the guarantee of a good conscience before God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He went to heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

1 Peter 3:21–22 EHV

Two major points:

1) “baptism saves.” Many people want to relegate baptism to a secondary, non-effective symbol, ignoring that “baptism saves”… It is one of God’s means for bringing the benefits of Christ, forgiving and saving, to us. In addition to baptism saving, it “guarantees a good conscience before God.” When we struggle with sin that is already forgiven, we can believe what God has done for us in our baptism, and our conscience has been cleansed.

2) “Lord’s Supper also gives forgiveness.” God offers another avenue for helping us move beyond the struggle of forgiveness, namely the Lord’s Supper.

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. He said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it all of you, for this is my blood of the new testament, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Matthew 26:26–28 EHV

In receiving the Lord’s Supper we receive the body and blood of Jesus (not just symbols) for the forgiveness of sins. One of the deep, long lasting privileges of having the Lord’s Supper often (we celebrate every Sunday, every service) is that forgiveness of sins is upper most in the Lord’s Supper. That is what we need to hear, receive, believe so that forgiveness is declared “often” in a tangible way.

God has another means of reassuring us about forgiveness, namely through confession and absolution. As Lutherans we also have the office of the keys in worship (along with baptism and the Lord’s Supper). We begin worship with the invocation: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” —the One who baptized us is acknowledged and confessed in the very first part of worship. When we confess our sins, we then hear the words of forgiveness (again!), when the pastor announces: “Therefore in the name of Jesus Christ I forgive you your sins.” Once again God’s delivery means (spoken) of that forgiveness becomes part of our defense against sin, scarred conscience, unforgiveness for ourselves, etc.

When Jeremiah wrote about the new covenant promise (Jeremiah 31:31-34) at the end he concludes with these words:

for I will forgive their guilt,
and I will remember their sins no more.

Jeremiah 31:34 EHV

 “I will remember their sins no more!” So God does not remember the sin. But we are called to remember that He does not remember! And there is great comfort! 

I don’t know about you but these multiple ways of hearing/receiving forgiveness and the assurance that it is a done deal with God is comforting, hopeful. Important, because sometimes in the business of life and activity, I forget these essential truths.

May we all live in the comfort, hope, strength, and the promise of God’s continuing forgiveness through Baptism, confession/absolution, and Lord’s Supper.

Struggling with Forgiveness

Sometimes forgiving someone may easy, but other times forgiving is a struggle, a challenge. The depth of hurt, lies, rumors, abuse, significantly changes the ability to forgive. No longer is it a simple matter of “Well, just forgive the person and get over it.” The pain is so deep, so real, so penetrating that even talking about forgiving seems an impossibility.

Sometimes, well-meaning friends will quote these words from Jesus.

[Jesus said] “For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.

(Matt. 6:14-15 NET)

Our Gospel reading for Sep 13 also highlights this: Matthew 18:21–35. Maybe you have been caught in the clutches of this Scripture. I know I have. The severity of the sin (against me) increases the struggle to forgive (“I will NEVER forgive that person!!”). Other things follow: shame for not being able to follow Jesus’ words, fear that by not forgiving I have committed a greater sin than the one who sinned against me, guilt for failing to live out the Law. And the list goes on.

At this point of failure, we cannot even bear the weight of the Law let alone forgive. There is another aspect that is often missing. Jesus came to bear the sins of all people— all sins, including (especially?) not forgiving another person. Jesus has fulfilled all demands of the Law for us… in our place. Jesus forgives when we cannot. Thus, instead of living in the dread of unforgiveness, we live in the reality of Jesus’ real forgiveness for us in our place. This is not always an instant fix. But…

In time that news changes everything from dread, fear, pain, failure to relief, peace, hope, and forgiveness. Will our words immediately change? I have not found that to be the case, but the longer I read and reflect on what Jesus has done, the more it is a reality. The demand to forgive is changed to the fulfillment of forgiving —in Jesus. And this path will ultimately lead to change.

Written by a struggling sinner, who has faced this for most of his life with different sins, different people, and still learning about forgiving.

For you

The Illusion and Disillusion of the Christian Life

A sad fact of life today in many Christian churches is that the message proclaimed is confused, the pastors set the agenda and expect many people to follow—without question. But is that the Church that Jesus established? Is that the Church that Paul describes? Not at all. But the problem is not new with this latest generation of pastors, leaders, and churches.

Paul wrote to his protege, Timothy, in his second letter, these sobering, realistic, necessary words:

12 Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:12–17 NAS)

The real Christian life for the one who believes in Jesus Christ and desires to lead a godly life is the expectation that you will be persecuted—even (or especially) in the church! And the church will not lack for “evil men and imposters” (v. 13). They will not be content with how God describes and desires the church to be, rather as evil men and imposters, they are not only open to deception but they will deceive so that the deterioration of the church will continue. The deceivers will mock, ridicule, and manipulate Christians who hold to the truth.

Paul lays out the path for us as Christians to follow. Notice that Paul does not give “Five easy steps to have a better marriage” nor ‘How to be successful in life” nor “Love everyone and be open to learn how to explore greater dimensions of spirituality.” Rather, Paul points them back to the basics of the Christian faith centered on Jesus Christ. That means seeing what the Bible says about sin, law, confession, forgiveness, Gospel (what Jesus Christ has done for us and still does for us), and everything that flows from it, namely 2 Tim. 3:14-15.

Tragically it is popular among many pastors to preach and teach new ways of the law “in order to be more spiritual.” “The good old way,” “fire and brimstone,” “shape up or get out” “get on the bus so you don’t miss”— That path might look inviting initially, but each leads to even greater tragedy, greater despair of failing to live according to man-made rules. And worse, they will begin to apply the Law to those already broken by sin under the law. And worse they will proclaim the Gospel to those who are secure in their sin, who have not been broken by the Law.

Paul is not encouraging or promoting “new ways,” rather what has been given in Scripture is sufficient for all time: it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Rather than blazing new trails ahead, Paul is calling Christians back to that which was given by God centuries ago, even before the era of the New Testament.

For pastors and teachers, popularity, the latest trends, or fashion are not the solutions and never were. Nor is rewinding the calendar to a “golden age” the answer. Going back to what Scripture taught, what faithful pastors and teachers have proclaimed from Scripture, that will be revolutionary for the church today. And that will be life-saving for people and churches as they grow in faith in Jesus Christ. If pastors do not teach the Scriptures, then they need to be confronted: “reprove, correct, and train in righteousness” for the benefit of the church.

==================================================================

For more on the Church: Matthew 16:13–20; 18:15–20; Acts 2, Ephesiasn 2; 4; Romans 3–8; 12; 1 Corinthians 11–12; 1 Peter; 2 Peter; 1 John

27 Years ago: Life—Death—Life

The weekend of January 31, 1993 looked to be an interesting football weekend. The Buffalo Bills would face the Dallas Cowboys. Having been an “anti-Cowboys” fan since the early 1960s, there would be no doubt who I would cheer for. That was my expectation.

But before the game ever started there was another battle that would dominate that weekend and month. I was not prepared for this battle, I felt totally overwhelmed by it. And yet…

Our older son would turn 23 just a couple months after the Super Bowl. He had been involved in drugs since 1984, spent more than a year in a psychiatric hospital before his 18th birthday, in jail/prison two different times before he turned 22. He was married at age 21, married an attorney who was an addict. Not a good mix.

The Accident: 9:30 AM

On Friday, Jan. 29, about 9:30 AM my wife received a call from an ER nurse at the closest hospital to where our son lived, about a 6-hour drive from where we lived. The nurse asked my wife a couple questions, readily acknowledging that she had reached the right people. She said “there was a serious car accident, your son and his wife were involved. We are just starting to treat them in the ER.” Then she stopped, shouted into the phone, “Oh, no! He’s gone critical, don’t leave!!” Click

Now what? We couldn’t drive 6 hours on that information. What if the concern wasn’t that bad? Or what if we would be too late to see them, even if we left now?

We immediately began calling our prayer chain at church: prayers for his life, for the surgery, for his wife, for peace in the midst of the storm.

The nurse called back about 5:30 PM and explained a little. Our son showed signs of deteriorating quickly. He had broken three ribs, punctured his lungs, had a broken clavicle, had broken his pelvis in three places. Most urgent, however, his brain began to swell. They rushed him into surgery by the neurosurgeon, who removed ½ of his skull.

At the hospital: 11:00 PM

Later that night, when we drove there, we discovered that the neurosurgeon had injured his hand and had been out for several months. This was his first day back, and his first surgery. Not the weekend we expected!

We arrived about 11 PM and began to receive the reports about his injuries before they would even let us see him. The surgeon said: “To be honest, we don’t know how this will go. But, it will be 4-6 weeks before we know whether he will live. It will be at least a year before we know how much of his motor skills he will retain. This is best case scenario.”

A slam to the gut! But he was alive, step one. And then they let us go into the critical care unit to see him. Yep, as you would expect, tubes everywhere, monitors for every part of his body, his body and head wrapped. No visible response from him at all. 

We learned from police reports that he had pulled out to cross a highway, right into the path of a car going 55 mph. The impact was right at the post where the driver’s door would open. We saw the car a couple days later. We still can’t explain how he survived. The door and frame were shoved half way across the front seat where his seat had been. I still couldn’t visualize how his body wasn’t torn apart. It was a miracle that he was even breathing.

His wife had been injured but in a different way. Her brain was suffering from “shaken brain syndrome.” Outwardly there were no broken bones, no lacerations, but the brain injury was harder for them to treat. Measurements were not in noticeable terms for us. But she was recovering slowly.

Recovery Begins

By Saturday he recognized us, and he could hold a pen and write on a note pad: “I love you” and “God loves me.” At that point that response was sufficient for us. By Sunday the doctor was able to remove the breathing tube long enough to say a couple words. Not much, but far more than we expected. In fact, that afternoon, he was able to watch a little TV and could follow the Super Bowl. Even the neurosurgeon was surprised at his progress.

He had another surgery on Tuesday, We had to leave on Wednesday, but kept in contact with the hospital and the doctor. He had another surgery on Friday to replace his skull that had been taken out initially, and another surgery the following Monday.

You have got to be kidding me!

10 days after the accident, our son was released from the hospital. The surgeon couldn’t believe the progress. We told him it was a miracle; he said he couldn’t argue with that.

But all was not well with our son. He tried walking with crutches (broken pelvis, broken ribs do not make good companions for recovering from surgery). By that next Friday he had fallen in his home and couldn’t get up. His wife was still in the hospital. So he managed to pull the telephone to himself (the days before cell phones) and called me. I immediately left, drove all the way up, got there about 11 PM, cleaned/showered him, cleaned their house, got breakfast for him, and immediately I turned around to bring him home with us.

It took him about a month living with us before he was able to do most things for himself. I took him back to his home, and he wife was released and they settled into their recovery together.

Not exactly the Super Bowl weekend I had anticipated. But we were thankful for him being alive. The road gets dark over the next 25 years, including him going missing for 18 years.

But I will always look back to this Super Bowl weekend and marvel at God’s surprising (to us!) goodness to our son and his wife. No, not what we expected. But isn’t that life in this world, even with God?

“Can’t even walk…”

The wear and tear of life can be a big burden. For many of us this relates to the challenges of quarantine and attendant problems. But for some the weariness and burden is much bigger, preceding the pandemic. It encompasses more than the threat of the disease, more than being saturated with headlines that dominate the media, especially social media.

As I have faced some challenges of getting older, I have also experienced multiple physical injuries that are invisible to most people. This goes back at least to 2013. The physical pain may pass but the effects linger, unseen, and many times unfelt. The major problem is the accumulative effect of multiple problems. And that can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming.

Living in the era of the quaratine and all that such entails means that we have new normal for life. It is complicated when some “prescriptions” to solve problems may actually interfer with other problems. Many Christians want to offer the solution, but it ends up often just pushing what you can do to overcome. Long term this can lead to exhaustion: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Jamie Lynn Wilsom recorded a song (written by Colbert and Joyce Croft in 1975) seven years ago that expresses this exhaustion:

Even to walk is a challenge at times like this. But as she expresses it in song, it doesn’t end with “I can’t even walk…” But “I can’t even walk without God leading, holding my hand.”

So while the overwhelming nature of our times might be too much, the answer is not to “push through,” as if we have the strength to conquer everything. Rather “I can’t even walk without You holding my hand.”

This brings to mind Psalm 91, which I wrote about in 1985 while in seminary. The last three verses articulate the faith that clings, not to our strength, but to God’s promises, even in the worst of times.

So as we move forward this year and coming years, let us find strength, hope, and encouragement in God’s Word in the promises of Psalm 91.

Reflections on Changes

This month marks many changes and new avenues of life. I am retiring effective September 1, 2020, and I have submitted my resignation to the congregation. In many ways, this is a difficult change, especially emotionally. But that has more to do with many other things happening in my life, not in the church. 

From a physical perspective, this is necessary. I have endured several injuries over the past five years, each causing both pain and more limited activity. Because a couple of these accidents have involved hits to my head, I have noticed gaps in my thinking. So it is time for my body to not be under the stress.

Overall, I have been tired for several years, and it shows. Spiritually much has been happening (much of it good), but the tiredness has affected me in this realm as well. I have been working non stop since I was five years old, beginning with hand planting field corn on 5 acres. Cutting wood for furnace in MN winters, baling hay and selling excess, snow plowing for years. Yeah, I’m tired.

So what is next? We will be moving out of California soon (no specifics yet). I have many books I plan to read. And I will be writing reviews on them as that happens. I will still teach in our seminary as requested. I will still serve on the Clergy Commission, and occasionally provide pulpit supply as requested.

Truth be told, I am looking forward to the change. I am ready for it, spiritually, emotionally, physically.

I am thankful for all the wonderful people I have served over the past 35 years. Grateful for the fellowship, help, and listening ear. 

Appropriate retirement quotes

 Retirement isn’t the end of the road, but just a turn in the road.

Retire from your job, but never retire your mind

The best part about being retired is never having to request time off.

Thanks everyone. We are now preparing our 29th move (for real).