Discipleship Intro

The following posts will offer some thoughts about discipleship from a Lutheran perspective.

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As a child of God through faith in Jesus Christ, Who is the Head of the Church, we have been granted great and precious promises, namely, the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of everlasting life in heaven. This means more, however, than attending worship services occasionally. As a member of the Body of Christ, we are a branch grafted into the Vine, Jesus Christ. Our life and health are tied to Him.

We as Christians have agreed to walk together in faith. We support, encourage, ex­hort, and rebuke one another—always in love. We also seek together to do the will of our heavenly Father. The primary task of the Church is to worship God and make disciples. That can be done only through a Word and Sacrament ministry (see Matthew 28:18–20). Every Christian is to be involved in the disciple-making process. God gives us the vision, the resources, and the strength for this most important work.

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Chief Article of the Christian Faith

The Lutheran Confessions state clearly that justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is the article by which the Church stands or falls. Carl Braaten (Principles of Lutheran Theology, Fortress, 2007) in his chapter on “The Confessional Principle” posed the challenge for us, “The question we face today as Lutherans is whether justification by faith alone is still the right key for the church” (p. 43). And yet, he fails to give an adequate response, especially in light of two shifts in recent decades that challenge such a claim.

1. New Perspective on Paul: Breaking ground on this was Krister Stendahl and James D. G. Dunn. However, N. T. Wright has led the way in challenging the essential issue at stake in Pauline with what is called the New Perspective on Paul. He claims that Luther and the reformers framed the issue around their own current topics, not around what Paul and the NT presented. In essence, Luther asked the wrong question (how can a sinner be justified before a holy God?).

Recently Dan Wallace offered a compelling critique of Wright and the NPP, “Δικαιοσύνη Θεοῦ and N. T. Wright.” As a convenient summary, Wallace writes about the problem from a lexical perspective, “It has coherence when it is not interacting with the particulars of the text, but it wreaks havoc at the lexical level for it is self-defeating.” But Wallace further highlights the ultimate failure of Wright’s approach and method, “I would view Wright’s synthesis of Romans as a brilliant failure—brilliant because of how coherent it is, but a failure because it sits three feet above the text at all points where it would be inconvenient to wrestle with what the text actually says.”

Paul McCain offers a Lutheran starting point for evaluating the NPP with his article on CyberBrethren.

2. Post-modernism: Braaten is definitely a “modern” writer. As you read his works, it almost seems as if he is reluctant to give up the modern perspective for the post-modern reality of life. He has regularly written about the failures of the ELCA and its abandonment of the Lutheran perspective, whether due to the reduction to social gospel or the emphasis on the gospel of inclusiveness. But still his framework is the absolutes of modernity. Thus, while he offers valuable critiques of what went wrong, he offers nothing with regard to a post-modern world view.

So, the challenge of Braaten’s question is still there, but the response has to deal with the post-modern challenges. Stay tuned.

ESV 2 Cor. 9:5

One of my concerns over the years has been accurate Bible translations, which are also functional within a liturgical environment with all that such requirements entail. Thus, contrary to many who post about Bible translations, I am not necessarily opposed to “biblish” in an English translation. These are English words or phrases that are derived from other languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and which retain a similar structure or syntax of the original language. But even more important, with biblish words there is a continuity with the faith expression within the church, and learning the faith includes learning some of these key terms in the context of liturgy and faith development.

On the other hand, if a translation uses a word that is not natural English nor does it reflect the church’s liturgical language (not biblish), then the translation has missed the goal on both counts. The ESV translators struggled to maintain the language continuity with the KJV tradition, an admirable goal. But it also includes terms and phrases that fail miserably in both areas. This passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians illustrates the use of a word that fails in several ways.

2 Corinthians 9:5

So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you and arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift, not as an exaction.

How often is the word “exaction” used in natural English? Seldom, if ever. Is this a biblish example? It is not, because it carries no church or liturgical weight.

The problem is compounded because if a person does not know the word but tries to get the meaning from the root, “exact” the person will likely consider it related to how accurate something is (For instance, “Is it exactly 12 inches long?”).

Finally, from an oral perspective, the ESV rendering fails; the word does not sound right when spoken. In fact, it was when I read this text during our nightly devotions last night that I noticed how awkward this word is.

So, what’s the solution? Each of these has acceptable wording:

TNIV/NLT: not as one grudgingly given.

NRSV/HCSB/REB:/NAB and not as an extortion.

GW: and it won’t be something you’re forced to do.

NET: and not as something you feel forced to do

NJB: and not an imposition.

NAS95: and not affected by covetousness.

The NAS95 is probably the least likely of these alternatives, but still better than ESV. This is one example of where the ESV should have updated the RSV translation.

An invitation and faulty memory

John 6:24-35

This text begins the great slide from the pinnacle of Jesus’ popularity to the pits, from the acclamation of the crowds who were fed (6:24) and wanted to make him king (6:14) to the disciples who refused to be fed with true bread (6:66). A little bread filled their stomachs, but the true bread from heaven was not welcomed.

Like the Israelites of old (Exodus 16), they couldn’t see what God was doing in their midst. Those Israelites complained for centuries about the oppression in Egypt, yet wanted to go back there as soon as they had to depend on God for food. While they complained against Moses and Aaron, their real complaint was against God.

So, in John 6, the people idolized Moses but only in their patch work memory. Had they lived during Moses’ time, they would have joined the complainers. Instead, now with Jesus they wanted someone like Moses to appear who could give them bread once again, just like the good old days. God would once again succumb to their demands, or so they thought.

In the process these followers in John 6 could not accept the gift (“the Son of Man will give to you”) of food, but were piqued in their interest in “working the works of God.” Now that was something they could handle. “Just tell us how to work the works of God, Jesus!” So Jesus said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Notice how that invitation is ignored. Instead, they demand (another!) sign from Jesus, different than the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-13).

How often have we followed that path? Jesus invites us to believe him, yet we want something more, more for us to do, and more for Jesus to prove that he is worth it. Am I more willing to live in light of the past, and rest on my laurels as a Christian? Or is God speaking through his word today, to me? Is he inviting me once again “to labor for the food that endures to eternal life” (6:27)?

When Jesus responds to the demands for a sign, like the sign of bread in the wilderness, he opens for them the understanding that it wasn’t Moses, but God who provided. And if they open their eyes now, it is Jesus himself who is the true bread who gives of himself so that they might have eternal life. It seems they get the invitation, for in 6:34 they respond: “Lord, give us this bread always.” But as noted in 6:36, they do not believe in Jesus, therefore they cannot have the gift of eternal life. But Jesus continues to extend the invitation, “will you also go away (or will you believe in me)” 6:67.

A misplaced referent with a conceptual signified

I preached an installation service last Sunday; the text was 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Everything went well, but there was my blooper of a reference. I had noted that one small town (quite few miles away from where the service was taking place) in this state was well known outside the state because of its frequent occurrence at Call Day at Seminary.

Without thinking about the circumstances, I made the transition to my text by saying, “But the call to the worst church would have to be the one to Corinth.” As soon as I made the comment I noticed most of the people snickering. I thought, “Why would they consider that funny?” Of course, my use of Corinth (conceptual signified) was to the referent in first century Greece, yeah that Corinth. But there is a very small town (now almost non-existent) ~30 miles north of the city where I was preaching — yep, you guessed it, the name of Corinth, the referent which meant something to most in the service that day! Afterward, at least eight people came up to me and commented (with huge smiles), “You were almost half way through the sermon before I figured you meant the other Corinth.”

Overall, it was great day, and we all enjoyed the referent problem.

Luke 1:53 ESV

This Sunday morning (liturgically Advent 4), the Gospel reading caught my attention. I had mentally read the passage many times in the Greek and in several translations preparing for the Bible study on Luke (in the past two months). But I had not read it aloud. When I heard it read this Sunday, I grabbed the bulletin to see whether the person read it correctly – he did. But the text itself was “wrong”.

The reading, Luke 1:39-56, was from ESV. Note 1:53:

he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.

I think many people read it in their minds (like I had before this Sunday) and make the necessary mental adjustment so that it reads correctly. But when this is read orally, it is clear how awkward the English phrasing is.

The way it is written, “empty” functions as noun/pronoun as the direct object (substitute “them” and see how you would speak it). As it is, I would wonder whether “empty” was lonely when sent away? Was “empty’s” feelings hurt?

In reality, the word “empty” should be an adverb telling “how” the rich were sent away. Thus it should read:

he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Thus, a typically good liturgical translation (ESV) fails in this specific liturgical text.

Just to clarify my use of the ESV: I use several translations for preparing Bible studies, in addition to the original language texts. ESV is one of them, but I personally prefer the combination of NAS, NKJV, HCSB, and GW. However, the congregation where I teach has now started using the ESV for Sunday readings – because Concordia Publishing House began using ESV on the back of the bulletins beginning with Advent 1 Sunday (four weeks ago). And CPH used the ESV as the base for the liturgical sections of the new hymnal published in August (Lutheran Service Book – LSB)

In the past couple of years I was encouraged by the ESV translation because of its “standardized” liturgical texts (i.e. Ps. 116:12-13, 17-19, Ps. 136:1, Is. 6:3, John 6:68 etc.). However, the more I have read the ESV (about 1/2, so far), the less I like it. I find it not as easy to read as NAS and NKJV, which are usually considered “choppy”. Could I teach using the ESV? Yep, just like I can with other translations. But I would use it with caution.

Given my exposure to the ESV over the past year (through private reading/devotion and some teaching), I would definitely state that the NKJV is a much better liturgical translation.