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Monthly Archives: August 2009
What about love? Over and over, it was said that we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” This is obviously essential to Christianity, and it flows out of that Love with which Christ first loved us. We should ask, then, how Christ has loved us, and seek to love others with that same love. There is not a single instance where Jesus overlooked or excused any sin. It is true that the traditions of Judaism considered it a sin to do anything on the Sabbath, and that Jesus healed on the Sabbath. But those who opposed Jesus had forgotten that the Sabbath was meant for the good of God’s people; it was never a way to neglect those in need or a day to refuse to help someone. Jesus restored the Sabbath to what it was supposed to be: a day for the good of His creation. He did this especially by His rest in the tomb on the Sabbath, and His opening of the eternal Sabbath rest for all people through His resurrection on the eighth day. But where does Jesus ever condone or excuse sin? He tells the woman caught in adultery to “go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). He doesn’t excuse sin; He dies for it! He doesn’t condone sin; He forgives it! One speaker summarized well the work of the Church in this world: “Welcome sinners and call sinners to repentance; we do both.” If the Church would paint that on her doorposts and bind it to her forehead, much confusion would be avoided, and her members would clearly see how to deal with sin and sinners (which is how Christ has dealt with us). If the Scriptures truly contain God’s Law and if God is truly Love, then it is impossible that the Law and Love should contradict each other. Yet, that is exactly what many speakers called for: to let “love” (understood as acceptance without a call to repentance) trump the Law. But that sort of false love always says “God loves you as you are, so it’s no problem if you stay the way you are.” God never says that to sinners. He says, “I love you in spite of who you are, and I intend to make you into a perfect image of My Son, which is what I intended for My creation.”
What kind of love is it to encourage someone to continue in rebellion against God’s Law? What kind of love is it to not call a sinner to repentance for all his or her sins? What kind of love is it to do what Jesus never did, and excuse sin rather than forgive it in His Name? That, in fact, is not love at all; it is callous disregard for the sinner and much closer to hatred. In this church, in these congregations, we will continue to love as Christ has loved us: by welcoming sinners and calling sinners to “repent and believe the Gospel.” We can, and we must, do both. Kyrie eleison! Lord, have mercy on us, sinners!
Pr. Timothy Winterstein
Many speakers at the CWA emphasized that we are all sinners in need of the Gospel. But many of these same speakers argued forcefully that non-celibate homosexuals should be able to have their relationships blessed (essentially equivalent to marriage) and to be able to serve as pastors in the ELCA. There is a fundamental disconnect at this point: the conclusion from this argument is that homosexual sex is not sin, and that non-celibate homosexuals are forgiven sinners even if they continue to engage in homosexual intercourse. But the speakers did not argue the second point on the basis of the Scriptures; indeed, such a position would be impossible to hold based on the Scriptures. Let’s be clear: there is not one positive mention of homosexual sex anywhere in the Old or New Testaments. Those who have looked have looked in vain. And it is not simply that there are a few “anti-gay” proof-texts such as Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, or 1 Timothy 1:10. All of the Scriptures speak with one voice and place sexual intercourse firmly and completely within the marriage of one man and one woman. All passages that speak of marriage speak of a man and a woman; all references to God and Israel, or Christ and the Church, take marriage between one man and one woman as their human metaphor. Simply try to read the prophet Hosea, or Song of Songs, or Ephesians 5:22-33 or Revelation 19:6-9, or Revelation 21:9 in any terms other than “one woman and one man.” It cannot be done, because from the very first pages of the Scriptures, God created humans to be male and female; “therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:22-24). There simply is no other positive paradigm in the Scriptures. (A helpful reference to the multitude of ways that the Scriptures hold up marriage as the paradigm and all other relationships as deviations from God’s will for creation is Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice.)
One reason that supporters of the ELCA resolutions rarely refer to these passages is that they are convinced that these simply do not apply to our current circumstances. (This is related to another difference between the ELCA and the LCMS, to which I will return in a moment.) So, to use Romans 1 as an example, it was argued on the floor at the CWA that when Paul speaks about “exchanging natural relationships for unnatural ones,” it would be unnatural for the speaker, as a gay man, to engage in heterosexual relationships. In other words, “natural” and “unnatural” are understood in reference to “what is natural or unnatural for me.” That is the polar opposite of what St. Paul says. The sole point of reference for Paul in Romans 1 is not what feels right or feels natural for any individual, but how God created things to be. From 1:18-1:32, the whole argument is one from creation, not from individual desires or how “I feel I was made.” Paul explicitly says that God gave them up “in the lusts of their hearts.” Sinful humans will always regard “the lusts of their hearts” as natural, and everything that opposes their (our!) desires as unnatural. Paul is not saying, as some speakers suggested, that it is sinful for heterosexuals to give up their heterosexual relationships for homosexual ones. Since it is God’s creation that sets the benchmark for what is natural, anything that goes against that creation is “unnatural.” And since homosexual sex goes against the way God set things up between men and women, it is fundamentally unnatural. But Paul goes on to list a number of other things that are unnatural, because they go against God’s creation: “all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice…envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness…. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:28-32). All of this is unnatural, because it goes against the will of God, which is built into His creation.
To return to one of the differences in how the LCMS and the ELCA read the Scriptures, it was clear from the speakers that those who were in favor of the changes (and probably at least some of those who were opposed), that they believed the Word of God to be something the Bible contains, but that the Bible cannot be unqualifiedly identified with the Word of God. We confess that the Bible, as a whole, is the Word of God because it all testifies to the Word-made-flesh, Jesus. Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” And Jesus says in Luke 24:44, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the Jews, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” and “If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:39-40, 46). He makes no distinction: the entire Old Testament testifies of Him (cf. 2 Timothy 3:14-17, especially v. 15, on the purpose of the Scriptures, as well as 2 Peter 1:19-21). The New Testament contains the witnesses to Jesus as the fulfillment of the whole Old Testament. We do not have the luxury or the insight into the Mind of God that would allow us to divide the Scriptures into “Word-of-God” and “not-Word-of-God.” Who has the divine insight to see, outside of what is actually in the Scriptures themselves, what belongs in the category of God’s Word and what does not? How would we go about doing so, other than by our own personal preferences? As soon as it is up to us to divide the Scriptures in this way, we place ourselves over the Scriptures, rather than in submission to them.
The ELCA, and those in the LCMS who are sympathetic to its theological commitments, hold that the “Gospel” is absolute, and that the “Gospel” can trump the Scriptures if we cannot see how some passages are compatible with that “Gospel.” But what is this gospel? It seems to be a general “yes” to whatever “seems good to the culture and to us.” And if it seems good, then it must be the work of the Holy Spirit. There are many issues bound together here, but it comes down to this for the ELCA: the Bible contains the Word of God, but it is not itself to be identified with the Word of God. This makes it difficult even to appeal to the Scriptures for standards for Christian behavior and life. Indeed, what is to stop any individual from declaring that some sin condemned by the Scriptures is now approved by “the Spirit”?
Pr. Timothy Winterstein
[Part I here]
I watched much of the debate at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly (CWA), and I was struck by a number of things. There was a lot of sharing of personal stories, experiences, and emotional appeals for one side or the other. Those things can be very convincing, because no one wants to be callous or mean-spirited to those who have been truly hurt by some action or word. But the confusion and the fuzzy thinking were palpable. What is sin? What does it mean to abide by God’s Law? How did Jesus act toward sinners? How should the Church act toward sinners? How should sinners act toward sinners? Who is being hypocritical? Who is resisting the Holy Spirit? All of these were brought up implicitly or explicitly. (In fact, one blatant and inexcusable instance was a pastor who strongly implied that those who opposed the social statement or ministry recommendations were guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.) The purpose of this letter is to give a brief overview of what we confess with the Scriptures about sexuality and sin.
We, in line with all the Scriptures, believe that all humans are born sinful and in need of salvation. There is no distinction; all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22b-23). Because all have sinned and none can find his own way back to God or repair that broken relationship, God has come to us: Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born, lived, died, rose again, and ascended to fulfill the will of the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit. Now, the Holy Spirit calls each and every sinner by the Gospel to believe and trust in Jesus, and be reconciled through the blood of Jesus to the Father as His children. All sinners must trust Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins, being baptized into the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; there is no salvation outside of the Name of Jesus, which He shares with His Father and the Spirit.
That is true for all sinners, regardless of what they have done or left undone. But what does it mean for those sinners who are in bondage to particular sins? We should recognize that all sinners have “pet sins” to which they are tempted to return again and again. Sin is an addiction, like any other addiction, and we are never fully cured in this life. We are all “recovering sinners” until death, and the great hope and confidence of Christians is that our bodies will one day be raised free of sin and free of temptation. Until then, we who are dead to sin and alive to God are called to continual warfare with our own sin and to continual confession and absolution for our own sin (e.g., Romans 6:12-14). Whether the sin to which we are particularly vulnerable is theft, gossip, covetousness, drunkenness, pornography, or homosexual intercourse, the answer is always the same: repent and believe in the Gospel. Before God’s righteousness, there is no difference between one sin and another, and there is no solution but confession and absolution, along with faithful use of the Word of God, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer—all of which take place at the foot of the cross. These are the Christian’s weapons of warfare.
Pr. Timothy Winterstein
This is a difficult time for all who share the name “Lutheran.” The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) voted this past week (August 17-23, 2009) to accept a social statement on sexuality that does not clearly uphold the Scriptural understanding that sexual intercourse belongs within a marriage between one man and one woman; they voted to find ways to bless “publicly accountable, monogamous, same-gender relationships”; and, further, they voted to move in the next few months toward including on the roster of pastors and leaders homosexuals in those same relationships. Close to two-thirds of the Churchwide Assembly (CWA) supported all of these motions and resolutions. Whether that represents the majority of people in the ELCA as a whole is an open question. Clearly, many bishops, pastors, and laity are pleased with the CWA’s actions. Some pastors and people, however, will find it difficult to stay in a church body that officially approves same-sex relationships.
What does this mean for our congregations and the LCMS? It means, first of all, that we will continue to do what we have always done: preach Jesus Christ, and Him crucified for the sins of all people; deliver His gifts to sinners who know that they are in need of a Savior; hold to the Word of God, first and foremost in the Word-made-flesh, Jesus; and cling to His baptismal promise and His Body and Blood in the Supper for forgiveness and the strengthening of our faith and unity. There is nothing else that can be done in the face of otherwise overwhelming opposition to the clear Word of God delivered to us in the Scriptures.
Many of you will have the opportunity to discuss the disheartening and tragic events of the past week. You may find that there are some members of ELCA congregations who are seeking a new church home and want to know what we teach and confess. You may find some ELCA members who are pleased with the actions of the CWA. You may find yourself questioned by other Christians who want to know whether we have just voted to ordain homosexuals, because they are not familiar with the differences between Lutheran church bodies. All of these are opportunities to clearly confess what Lutherans, and particularly the LCMS, really teach.
The first thing we should remember is that we do not claim the name “Lutheran” because we are disciples of Martin Luther. We are disciples of Jesus Christ, first and always. But since the Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century attempted to dismiss the Evangelicals (Luther’s preferred name for those who agreed with him) with the pejorative “Lutheran,” we have accepted it because we believe that, overall, Luther clearly taught the pure Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do not stand up for Luther, but for the Scriptures and Gospel that he taught. We do not endorse or hold to all of Luther’s writings, but we do hold to those that rightly interpret the Scriptures (including the Small Catechism, Large Catechism, and the Smalcald Articles—all found in the Book of Concord, or the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church). If anyone wants to know what we believe and teach, the briefest answer is that we hold to the Holy Scriptures, especially as they have been correctly interpreted by the Lutheran Confessions.
Pr. Timothy Winterstein