Herb’s Posts

Preaching Christ Alone

The sum and substance of our preaching is Christ, for Christ alone saves.

One of the passages we often read at an ordination or installation brings our Lord’s clear word,

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations…” (Luke 24:46f).

We revel in St. Paul’s “riff” in Philippians:

Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I might gain Christ, and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (3:7-9).

And we preachers also want our hearers to know Christ “and the power of His resurrection,” that we “may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible [we] may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (3:10).

Lutherans like to repeat Paul –“I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) – and we seek to follow Paul on Mars Hill, beginning at a point to which his hearers could relate, the “unknown god,” and ending with Christ proclaimed for repentance and the forgiveness of sins:

now [God] commands all people everywhere to repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31).

Yet even in the Lutheran Church you sometimes hear sermons essentially Christless. What do I mean? Perhaps the preacher has determined to focus on marriage. He even has Ephesians 5:21-33 for his text (it does come up in the lectionary!). He spends most of the sermon explaining how wives are to submit themselves (desperately trying not to offend too many women) and cajoling the men to self-sacrificing love, to love like Jesus did, giving up His life for His bride, the church. All the while he is extolling Christian marriage – a great thing to do, by the way! – but in the end, the preacher says little or nothing of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

What is happening? Preaching Christ as example, he is preaching law, a necessary task to be sure, but if that’s all he does, many of his hearers will be stuck in their own self-righteousness, thinking, “I’m doing my best, Jesus, to follow your lead! I may not be perfect, but I’m working at it, and I sure hope my wife notices, too!” Other men (not to mention the wives) will be crushed under the weight they perceive in the requirement. Some will be at the edge of despair. Even more will simply reject this word of God as “impossible,” “unrealistic,” “not connected to the real world.” And for them, the Christian enterprise will sound more and more like a fairy tale, a “once upon a time” thing out on the edges, rather than the nitty-gritty, down to earth, core of life thing it really is.

It doesn’t work, simply at the close of such a sermon, to tack on a few phrases, “Oh yes, Christ died for your sins, too!” when you have spent 95% of your hearers’ time developing “Six Biblical Principles to Make Your Marriage Great!” The Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins and raised again for our justification can NEVER just be tacked on, “essential” perhaps, but functionally an after-thought nonetheless.

Indeed, whatever the topic, Christ crucified and raised from the dead, FOR YOU, must be the center. Even after we extol Christ as Friend, Christ as Example, we must above all preach Him as Savior of sinners – “repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed…” Christians DO need to hear the Law as a guide for living, for we do need to know what truly pleases God, but in the end the Law always also accuses, exposes where we fall short. To continue with our example, husband and wife, as hard as they may try to follow Christ’s example, will never live in perfect sacrificial, self-submitting love. They will always need Christ’s perfect sacrifice for them both, for they are still sinner/saints. The old Adam (our sinful nature) still clings and must be drowned daily by repentance, so that Christ, who gave Himself for both, might raise both to newness of life – daily.

So Christ’s sacrificial love for the church is much more than our example to follow, but is most of all the means by which we are forgiven when we fail, and the means by which we live in spite of our failures. Our sins kill us, but Christ makes alive. Our sins would separate us from God and from one another, but Christ washes us clean daily. Paul writes of this chapter,

This mystery is profound, and I am saying it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:32f).

For in the center of this teaching is the promise,

…Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish…” (Ephesians 5:25-27).

The church is holy only because Christ washes her daily. A Christian marriage is made holy only with the forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ spoken and received. In the creed we confess the church to be holy, the communion of saints. This is possible only by means of the line that follows next: [I believe in] “the forgiveness of sins.”  “Repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed…”

Making the Gospel promises clear is actually quite difficult work for the preacher. It is often easy to develop, for instance, a sermon on prayer, in which the preacher talks about our need for prayer, how we don’t pray enough, how God promises to hear, so why don’t we pray more? That sermon can be quickly written. But it’s usually much more work for the preacher to go deeper, to bring pointed Law and specific Gospel, in other words, Law that kills, that allows no one to say, “I’m OK for now – at least I’m better than he is.” Killing Law prepares the hearer for the preacher to come with the life-giving Gospel promise specifically applied to the particular deadly corruption thus exposed. Properly preached, the Law brings even the Christian to despair of his own efforts so that Christ alone can be Savior: Here is the One who has done all for you! His perfect life, His death for sin, His rising from the dead, His righteousness, His peace, it’s ALL YOURS! Here in the promise, your sin is forgiven you. Go in peace, you are free! You are baptized, adopted sons and daughters in God’s household. Here is your brother Jesus, the One who prays for you, who gives you the right to call God Father! When you pray, you walk right into the throne room of the Lord of all the universe with your prayers and petitions, because He has promised to hear. You have at work in you the power of His resurrection. It’s ALL FOR YOU!

Christ now sees YOU as His holy bride, all of you who are baptized into His name, trusting His promise.  Now, in your marriage, He enables you, husband and wife, to see each other as He sees you, in splendor, without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish. Now, even when we fail, He raises us, and we are alive in Him. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect,” Paul writes, “but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (Philippians 3:12). Now we see it by faith, but it’s real, because He promised.  Believe it, because it’s yours in Him.

Finding fresh ways to say this is not easy, for what theologians call the “opinion of the law,” is found also in the preacher. In other words, even though we might not want to admit it, we naturally think we will impress God by our doing, by how hard we worked. Or we think we have to do God’s work for Him. But when the preacher knows that he himself is truly broken, that apart from Christ he truly is a damned sinner just like the rest of us, that recognition will compel a constant searching the Scriptures for the healing balm of Christ, and a deep well-spring of eagerness to bring that healing message to others. An observation:  When I hear a sermon particularly clear and persuasive in its Gospel presentation, often when I talk with that preacher I’m confident I will find a man who himself knows what it is like to be completely broken, to be utterly desperate to hear the good news of Jesus. That’s what makes him desperate to bring it to others. Just as the same man who said, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) also said, in the same letter, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (9:16).

Stated positively, we have the best news there is!

God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

What could be better? It’s Jesus, Jesus for you! There’s the sum and substance of our preaching, for Jesus alone saves!

+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President
The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod

International Center Chapel Homily – July 17, 2013

[Note:  Wednesdays here at the International Center we work through the catechism, week by week.  Today we focused on the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, with Chaplain William Weedon as preacher.  This was exactly the Word of God I needed to hear, so we wanted to bring it also to you.  Blessings – Herbert Mueller]

I.N.I.

Text: Galatians 5:16-25

It’s a battle of the Kingdoms. The Kingdom of this world as it now is. The Kingdom of God as this world will finally be at Christ’s return. You heard St. Paul describe them in the reading. The one characterized by works of the flesh: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality (living for pleasure, hedonism), idolatry (trying to squeeze eternal life out of the stuff of this fallen world), sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and (he’s not even giving an exhaustive list!) things like these. That’s the world we live in. That’s the world that lives in us all since the Fall.

But the world that will be, the Kingdom that is coming? The fruits of the Spirit characterize it: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

The Kingdom that is coming and that will be the future of this world, made its beach-head into the Kingdom of darkness at the incarnation of our Lord Jesus. There for the first time in human flesh was a person who literally LIVED the fruits of the Spirit without ceasing. Flawlessly.  From conception to death and so from death to resurrection! He did it all, for you! And from the resurrection the Kingdom expanded and grew. That growth comes in two ways.

First, it grows by new folks being added to it through the Spirit’s work. They receive the gift of faith, and are baptized and the Church grows. That’s how it has expanded through the whole world and how it continues to expand.

But the second way the Kingdom grows is INSIDE you. For that’s where the battle rages. As long as you live in your fallen flesh, the works of the flesh will continue to try to erupt in your life and disrupt your enjoyment of the Kingdom of God, to destroy the fruits of the Spirit in your life. And in just the same way the Kingdom of God in your life, planted into you at your baptism, engages in an non-stop war against the passions and evil works of your flesh. They are never at peace with each other. The one means the death of the other. To be a Christian is to live in this battle.

Now there are some Lutherans who will tell you that there is no progress in the Christian life, no growth in sanctification. But this is false and it is a lie. Luther in the Large Catechism on Baptism describes the ongoing struggle that Christians engage by the Spirit against the flesh, and he speaks of ever increasing in the fruits of the Spirit and ever diminishing in the works of the flesh. To be sure, it is a battle that proceeds in much weakness and with many setbacks, but it presses on relentlessly to the final victory at the Resurrection. Where this isn’t happening, Luther observes that Baptism isn’t being put to use but resisted.

Yet here is an oft-overlooked truth: this new life of the Spirit isn’t given to you piece-meal. It is given whole. When you were baptized you received the very righteousness of Christ, His flawless obedience to the law, as your very own. It’s the Lord’s gift to you, now given over and over again through repentance and faith. What you grow in is in your living out from that gift more and more, and less and less from the old Kingdom, the Kingdom and works of the flesh.

But this is impossible by your own strength and power. It can only happen by the Holy Spirit. And so the petition: “thy Kingdom come.” That’s your prayer that the Kingdom would increase in this world by gathering others into it, and that’s your prayer that the Kingdom would expand in YOUR life, so that by the gift of the Holy Spirit you believe God’s holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and there in eternity.

That is, when we pray the Second Petition, you ask that by the Spirit’s power your life would become ever more and more filled with the God’s own love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. That’s the Kingdom that WILL be the future of this world at the return of Christ. Thy Kingdom come asks for nothing less that that future gift to grow in your life now. May God grant it to us all!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

William Weedon
LCMS Director of Worship / International Center Chaplain

Sermon for the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

[Note:  This sermon was preached in the chapel at the International Center on June 25, 2013 as we commemorated the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession and installed Reverend Peter Jacob Haugen in the missionary office to which he has been called by the Board for International Mission to serve as a career missionary for the LCMS in partnership with the Gutnius Lutheran Church in Papau New Guinea.  + Herbert Mueller]

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

A few days ago, Pastor Haugen, you made a vow, in front of family and friends in Texas, when you were ordained. In a few moments you will repeat it for us.

This vow puts you with Lutheran confessors gathered before the imperial council in Augsburg, Germany, June 25th, 1530, exactly 483 years ago today. In a meeting of princes with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Chancellor Christian Beyer read out in a clear voice for all to hear this confession of the pure Gospel.

We believe that there is one divine essence, which is called and which is truly God, and that there are three persons in this one divine essence.

We believe all people born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin.

We also teach that the Son of God became man, and that the two natures, divine and human are so inseparably united that there is one Christ, who was born, lived, suffered, died and rose for us.

And we teach that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith…

And so that we might obtain this faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is provided the Gospel and the sacraments. [from the first five articles of the Augsburg Confession]

Now you are sent into the mission field with the badge of this confession. You are a Lutheran Pastor, pledged, as every Lutheran Pastor is, to preach and to teach only what accords with Scripture as explained by this confession.

It is not forced on you. But you take it freely, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the Gospel and for the sake of the people you will serve. This is where you stand.

But you will never be able to do it on your own. You are NOT able, not at all, not one bit.

In English where you have two negatives, in a backhanded sort of way, it turns the statement positive. But when Greek piles on the negatives, it just makes it stronger. That’s what John does here in bringing the Words of Jesus:

I am the Vine. You are the branches. The one who abides in me and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit, because (literally, it says) apart from me you are not able to do NOTHING.

Apart from me…

There are going to be times, Pastor Haugen, when you are going to wonder – what did I get myself into? Maybe already? When you or your dear wife and family will feel VERY ALONE. When you will feel completely inadequate, undone, and there will be a deep fear creeping up your spine that you are about to be discovered.

There will be other times when you think things are going well and – my goodness – wasn’t God really wise to place you where He did…!!!

EITHER WAY – you will be acting like a branch WITHOUT the Vine. And a branch without the Vine … is … dead.

Apart from me, Jesus said, you cannot do one single thing. So ABIDE IN ME, Jesus says, and let my Words abide in you.

This is the Word I have spoken to you, the Word that makes you clean.

In other words, YOU, dear Pastor, and you dear family – YOU live by the same Word of Jesus you are pledged to bring.

You know that the Apology says that the highest worship of Jesus is to receive the forgiveness of sins. You also are called to worship frequently at that altar, the altar of the forgiveness of sins in Christ, for you cannot give away what you have not first received.

Abide in Jesus’ Word.

Repent of any self-reliance.

Whenever it appears – give it up. It will get you nothing.

But hear again the Word of Jesus: “I am the Vine – you are the branches…”

I am filling your dead and sinful self with My life.

My Word speaks you righteous.

My Word makes you clean.

Jesus makes this comparison, of course, the very night before He went and did what His words say. When the Word of Divine judgment and condemnation for sin fell on HIM, not you. When, for you – He went to the cross – for you.

All the world thinks everything is run by KARMA, that is, you get out what you put in.

But here at the cross, it’s not Karma, but grace. You and I put evil in, but God sent that all to Jesus on the cross, not to us. So that NOW, there is only GRACE – undeserved favor – left for you. So Jesus says, YOU ARE CLEAN! Clean by my Word!

Yes, you! Each of you for the sake of Jesus.

There’s the Good News you are pledged to bring, Pastor Haugen, in partnership with the Good News Lutheran Church in New Guinea.

And there is the Word of Jesus that will sustain you and yours through everything.

In the name of Jesus, Amen.

All Is in God’s Hand

At the time these personal reflections are posted (composed this past Sunday afternoon), the first electronic ballot for President of Synod has been completed, though the results are not yet known. But all is in God’s hand, as the Word of God implies: “For not from east or from the west and not from the wilderness comes lifting up, but it is God who executes judgment, putting one down and lifting up another” (Psalm 75:6-7).

Daniel 2:21 has a similar thought – we serve at God’s pleasure, wherever we are. God places us where He desires that we serve Him. Certainly, as Lutherans, we believe God works through the means of His church, through means such as elections, whether in congregation or Synod. Of course, at one time it may be that God works through us, or sometimes in spite of us. But that’s His business.

One great comfort for called pastors, I believe, is the confidence we serve where God wants us to be, not where we have placed ourselves. Yes, we are called to trust that God knows where to “put one down and lift up another,” in the words of the Psalm, and He is able to do that no matter what means we might use.

To apply that personally means that I have been given the privilege of serving as pastor in three different congregations, as a district president for 16+ years, and now for the last three years as your First Vice-President. However God wishes to use me in the future has not yet been determined, but it IS in His hand. My preference is to continue to serve where I am now, with the people He has given. But MY preference doesn’t count. God will make His judgment. His will, will be done, and His will for us in Jesus Christ is ALWAYS for our good.

So who will be elected? Again, that’s God’s business. We may have our personal desires, but God will truly have His way. In our present process, He is using the electors of our Synod to place whom He wants where He wants. May He give each of us grace to serve Him faithfully wherever and whomever HE lifts up. After all, it WILL be good. It’s all in His hand.

Yours in Christ’s peace,
+ Herbert Mueller