“There’s something wrong with his heart. We’ve got to investigate this right away.” Those are fearful words because when there’s something wrong with your heart, you know it’s life threatening, or worse.
But if the doctor tells you, “He’s got a strong heart, this should be no lasting problem,” you have a good sign for hope, at least physically speaking.
So when we say something is at the heart and core of an issue, we’re talking about an absolute essential.
What is the “beating heart” of Christian teaching on the basis of Scripture? Simply this: “[W]e cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but… we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for His sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us” (Augsburg Confession, Art. IV, Kolb and Wengert, pp. 38, 40).
Lutheran Biblical theology is more than a list of positions we take on the basis of Scripture, positions that one can take or leave separately. Our theology is of one piece, an organic whole and justification by faith and the forgiveness of sins in Christ are the beating heart of that organism.
What does that mean for us? How do we receive all this?
The Bible has many ways of showing this (to cover all of them would take a book), but here are some of the most common:
+ God declares us righteous, by grace for Christ’s sake.
+ Christ redeems us (buys us back) from sin and death by His blood and His innocent death for us.
+ Christ covers our sin with His goodness.
+ God forgives our sin for the sake of Christ, thatis, He removes the sin so that it no longer gets in the way of our relationship with Him.
+ “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
+ God declares us “not guilty” by reason of the death and resurrection of Christ for us.
+ Christ has defeated our enemies, sin, death and hell, rescuing us for His kingdom.
There are many more ways of describing what Christ has done, though they are all part of the teaching of “Justification” described in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession. In every instance, however, the benefits described are never earned by our action, but are always given by God’s action. We simply receive them through faith in Jesus Christ.
In short, we are saved by God’s grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone and this is received through faith alone. That’s how we can say, “faith alone saves.” Not because faith is so great a work, but because faith receives Christ and all Christ has done for us.
Here you have the “beating heart” of our teaching and of the life of the Church.
If anything else is allowed to crowd this teaching, there’s something wrong at the heart. For instance, should anyone say or imply, “Yes, Christ is our savior, but to be saved (or to know that you’re saved) you’ve also got to___,” it doesn’t matter what you put in the blank. You’ve got doctrinal heart trouble. And it’s serious.
Why? Whenever we are told to find comfort in anything or anyone other than Christ and His work for us, we can never be sure. Only Christ saves, only in Him are we sure of God’s favor. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2 NIV).
It’s never our due, but always God’s gift, and the gift is given through faith in Jesus. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8). Everything in our teaching revolves around and comes back to this.
+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President, LCMS
The last Sunday in August, my brother, Pastor Tim Mueller of New Minden, IL, preached for the ordination of his son, Jacob, at Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Emma, Missouri. Another brother, Pastor Bill Mueller of Fort Wayne, IN, was also there. As part of his sermon, Tim pulled out a slip of paper that our mother had sent him to give to Jacob, in part because Jacob and his grandfather (also a pastor, now sainted) had shared the same birthday, February 6.
This was not just any slip of paper. It was the back side of a hospital menu sheet from July 1970. Our mother had carried this slip, encased in plastic, in her wallet for 42 years. Now she wanted Jacob, her grandson, the newly minted pastor, to have it. The only thing of any value on the slip was, in our father’s hand, a scripture reference – 1 Timothy 1:15. That was it. That was the precious thing she carried for 42 years.
Why? July 1970 was a terrible month. Dad was in intensive care with what they believed was some kind of bacterial infection of the heart. That particular day he appeared to be at death’s door. When he gave the slip to my mother, he couldn’t speak, but she knew that Dad meant it for the text of his funeral sermon.
By God’s grace (and much to the amazement of his doctors) he recovered that time and God gave us 26 more years with him. When we did celebrate the life of Christ in his life at his funeral in 1996, 1 Timothy 1:15 was the text. But Mom still carried the slip for all these 42 years. And now she wanted Jacob to have it, because it was the text that typified my father’s ministry for more than 50 years. She was unable to come for the ordination, but she sent it with her prayers that it would be the same for Jacob.
What does it say? “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s the ministry – one sinner bringing to other sinners the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation in Jesus. May that be the center of every pastor’s service with God’s people, including, especially, mine!
+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President, LCMS
Some years ago I was working with a small congregation in a small town during a vacancy in the pastoral office. The congregation, never large, had been declining in recent years. The previous pastor had left for a more attractive position in another state.
When I asked them why they had no Sunday School, they told me there were no children in the congregation. When I asked them what their mission was, they insisted that just about everyone in town already had a church. They thought there was no mission field.
I decided to challenge them. “Go to every other church in town and find out what their average church attendance is, then add up those numbers for all the churches in town.” Several weeks later I heard their discovery. On any given Sunday less than half the population of the town was in any church, and many of the congregations also drew from the surrounding country-side. “There’s your mission field,” we said.
Every one of our congregations is surrounded by a mission field – even yours! I do not know of a single county in the USA where more than half of the population is found in church, and in many, many locales the percentage is far less than half or even 25%.
No, this is not the time for blame! Don’t be saying, “Well if these people were more welcoming or if our members were truly Lutheran, or whatever, we’d be able to do more.” Don’t be thinking, “Well, if our pastor were a better preacher, or more with the times, or whatever, then we’d…”
Instead, here are some other questions, some basic “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” questions, to ask together, and with God’s guidance seek positive answers, TOGETHER:
Witness: Who are the people around us who do not know Jesus? Or have become disconnected from Him? How might we connect with some of them? Where are they? Who among us meets them as part of our various vocations? How might we get to know them so that we have the opportunity to confess the name of Christ? How might we find ways to baptize and teach them?
And we have seen and testify (witness!) that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God (1 John 4:14-15).
Mercy: What are the needs in this community? Who are the “invisible” people in the community? The people no one else notices? How many folks in your community are hurting? Why? Who are they and what are their needs? What do we have to offer them in the name of Christ? How can we be the arms of Christ’s mercy for them? How can we find them?
We love because he first loved us. If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:19-20).
Life Together: What is the health of our fellowship? How are we connected to one another? More importantly, how are we connected to Jesus Christ? Are we regularly in the Word of God, remembering our Baptism, receiving our Lord’s body and blood, in which He gives life? How many of our people are? Does our congregation live in love with one another as Christ loved us and gave Himself for us?
If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:6-7).
In other words, the things we do as the body of Christ in “Witness, Mercy and Life Together” are part of sanctification. That is, they grow from our justification. Christ has made us His own, forgiven our sins in the blood of His cross, and declared us righteous by His resurrection. Receiving these gifts by faith, we can revel in them, knowing our connection to Christ is sure. Living as His forgiven people, witness, mercy and life together are simply what we do as the body.
Our congregations are all outwardly different. The communities we serve vary significantly. The specific answers to these questions may also look different on the surface. But the purpose is the same – drawing people, by the Spirit’s work in Word and Sacrament, into the worship of the Holy Trinity, the only worship that gives life. We witness so that the Spirit might connect some to Jesus. We show mercy that hurting people may receive the love of Jesus. We live together in Christ’s Word, because
God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9).
Well, what happened to the congregation I was visiting? The Lord sent them a pastor who helped them discover children in the community who needed a place to go after school. Their Sunday School never really revived, but their three hour program for kids Wednesdays after school regularly drew dozens, and even brought parents and families. People were connected to Jesus, and the Spirit grew the congregation.
How will you prayerfully ask these questions in your congregation?
+ Herbert Mueller
LCMS First Vice President
So you want to improve your pastor? He’s not done anything wrong for which he can be removed from office in your parish, but you think he could do better, be a better pastor.
More than that, you also know just what he needs to do to improve! Should you tell him? How do you tell him? You want him to grow, of course, so you go to him with your laundry list of complaints – concerns you have, plus some you have “heard” from others.
Now pastors who are wise will listen to and benefit from constructive criticism. But pastors are human, too, sinners just like you! When the list of faults is long and the discussion becomes personal, it’s not hard for the pastor (and his family!) to become more and more discouraged.
I ask you now, who benefits from a discouraged pastor who’s “down in the dumps?” No one! (And believe me, I’ve seen and talked with my share of discouraged pastors.) But you still really would like your pastor to grow and improve! What do you do?
Here are some questions you first need to ask yourself (actually, this article is developed from a conversation I had along these lines several years ago with my friend, Pastor Mark Willig of St. John Lutheran Church in Chester, Illinois).
So you want to improve your pastor? Are you Lutheran? “Well, of course I am!” you respond. Then you will remember that Lutherans believe in the means of grace that God does His work of saving, forgiving, encouraging, strengthening us in faith through His Word and through Baptism and Holy Communion. That means when we speak God’s Word, God Himself is speaking that Word through us to accomplish His purposes.
Now here’s another question. Do the means of grace also work on pastors? Does the Word of God work, is God also speaking, when someone speaks that Word to a pastor? Yes, of course He is, right? Perhaps you haven’t thought of it this way, but this is exactly what pastors need! They need to hear the Word of God spoken to them!
If your pastor grows in faith, it will help him be a better pastor, right? How do we grow in the faith? As Lutherans we know we use the means of grace. So, how do you “improve” your pastor? You use the means of grace on him. You can’t baptize him all over again, but you can use the Word of God on him. In fact, the most important thing you can do for your pastor is to speak the Word of God to him. Tell him of Jesus Christ and His love for him. Tell him that Jesus died and rose also for him. Demonstrate that Word of God to him by your words and actions.
It happened to me one Lent about 20 years ago. We had come through some minor difficulties in our parish (I don’t even remember what they were) when some women of the parish, during Holy Week, took it on themselves to send me a card, a flower, a word of encouragement from the Word of God every day that week before Easter. God used them, spoke through them, to “improve” their pastor. And I was truly strengthened for the task of bringing the resurrection Gospel with renewed vigor that year.
What I am advocating for you, the lay people reading this, is a simple approach centered in the Word of God. We are Lutherans. We believe God Himself speaks in His Word. So SPEAK that Word to one another, and especially to your pastor.
What you will find is that you will not “improve” your pastor – we can’t do that ourselves anyway – but that God will. He can and He does work through His Word. What does Jesus say about your pastor? He’s forgiven, washed in Jesus’ blood, just like you are. Through His Word, God fills him with the Spirit.
That’s why we want to make the center of our meetings, everything we do, our very life together, the speaking of God’s Word to one another. See each other through the eyes of Jesus, who loves each of us with an everlasting love. God “improves” us by forgiving us, restoring us, renewing us in Jesus Christ.
Just in case there are any pastors reading this, it works the other way, too. So you want to “improve” (or grow!) your congregation? Are you Lutheran? Yes? Bring the means of grace to them, over and over. Speak the Word of God to them, day in and day out, the Word focused on Jesus. Keep on speaking. It’s what you have been given to do, even when you are tired of it. Tell them what a blessing it is to serve them with the Gospel, how precious they are in God’s eyes.
God will work through His Word – He promised! – to accomplish His purpose. May we in our parishes, pastor and people, live as St. Paul describes the church in Thessalonica:
“We also thank God continually because, when you received the Word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the Word of God, which is at work in you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).
+ Herbert Mueller
LCMS First Vice President
Which is better? To enter into marriage or to take a vow of celibacy to serve God as a priest? That was the question at the time of the Reformation 500 years ago. In the medieval church it was thought that taking a vow of celibacy put you on a higher spiritual plane than the common folk.
Our Lutheran forefathers, however, in writing Article XXIII of the Augsburg Confession, took the position that it is better to marry. They pointed to many grave vices and scandals that took place when priests were required to be celibate (sound familiar?).
More than that, they also point to the command and blessing of God, saying “Since God’s Word and command cannot be altered by any human vows or laws, our priests and other clergy have taken wives to themselves.” (Tappert, Theodore G.: The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2000, c1959, p. 52). Indeed, they say, in Holy Scripture “God commanded marriage to be held in honor” (Tappert, p. 54).
How is this an issue among us today? Our pastors are all allowed to marry, in fact, are encouraged to do so, the same as all the rest of us. But what is the condition of marriage as a gift and command of God among us?
You and I know that marriage is under attack on several fronts today. How many people, even in our churches, live together as though they were husband and wife before they are married? We have not always done a good job teaching our children. How many divorces are there among Christians? Sadly the rate is nearly the same as the rest of society.
What about gay marriage? What should be done about that? Any denigration of marriage is an abomination before God, but let’s dig into the issue just a little more deeply.
First of all, marriage was established by God, the Creator, at the beginning with Adam and Eve. God designed marriage to be the union of one man and one woman for life: “A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
The government, as God’s left hand instrument, enacts laws regulating marriage, requiring a license, etc. Even so, we believe from Scripture that marriage is God’s creation, a gift of God to us for our good, for mutual care and the establishment of the family.
Now what if the state begins to allow people of the same sex to apply for marriage licenses and “get married?” Does that mean such people are really married? No. It may, perhaps in the eyes of the state and society at large, but no, not in the eyes of God.
For example, if I have in my hand an onion, but I call it an orange, does that make it an orange? No. Calling the onion something it is not does not change it.
What should we Christians do about what is going on today? We have the freedom in our country to make our voices heard. We seek to do so in a faithful and caring manner, letting our elected leaders know our thoughts.
However, there is a dual trap here we need to avoid. There is the trap of the gay lifestyle itself. Pray for those involved that God would provide repentance and healing for the sake of Christ. We must not simply be the “church of no.” We are people of God’s Word and are called to help people burdened with homosexual desires (and their families) with loving care by means of God’s Law and Gospel.
There is also the trap for us that we might think we have done our job if we write our congressman or protest or vote against “gay marriage.” Yes, we do what free citizens of this country can do, but that never takes the place of our witness for Christ.
That’s why we don’t want to allow anything to keep us from bringing the good news of Jesus to others. As important as it might be, any work we do in the church to speak to the issues of society is secondary. Our primary job is to bring Christ to people, to plant and to water the seeds of God’s Word wherever and whenever we can. Only God changes hearts – and He does it through His Word.
Then our next job is to look to our own house, to teach and to help our children see the importance of waiting for marriage, to help each other, husbands and wives, keep our marriage vows to live together in holy love until life’s end.
This becomes even more important when we realize faithfulness in marriage is actually a reflection of God’s love and faithfulness for us, His people. God calls husbands to “love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her … this mystery is a profound one, and I am saying it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself…” (Ephesians 5:25, 32-33).
And that cannot be done without the Spirit of God refreshing us each day with the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ! May He, by His faithfulness to His promises, keep us faithful to ours.
+ Herbert Mueller
LCMS First Vice President