Sunday, August 20, 2017

Why does God Condemn Unbelievers to Hell?

by Pastor Paul Wolff

God is the loving Father
who welcomes back the prodigal son.

I recently ran across a presumptuous atheist question which asked, “What kind of a god would send people to hell for not believing in him?” This sounds like a rational question. Yet, this is another example of the truth that “If you ask the wrong question, you are sure to get the wrong answer.” In this case the answer to the rhetorical question is that God must be unjust and cruel. That is always wrong when you are talking about the one, true, Triune God.

A better question to start with is, “Who ought to be condemned by God?” The answer to this question is everyone who disobeys God’s Law. God’s Law is good and truly righteous, as He is truly good and righteous. We all are sinners, and deserve God’s punishment. There is no one who can rightfully claim the moral high ground over God and honestly make the case that they are more righteous than He is. We all deserve to be condemned. If we start with this question, and properly answer it, then we can easily see that God is not to blame for anyone’s condemnation. We are all rebellious sinners, and we all deserve to be destroyed for our sin. 

Jesus honored Zacchaeus
though he was despised by everyone.
Read Luke 19:1-10

So why do we even have any hope for salvation? The answer is that, despite our sin, God loves us and He is not only just and righteous, He is merciful. God knew that we could not pay the punishment for our own sins without being destroyed, so He did the job Himself when the second Person of the Trinity became incarnate as Jesus, to fulfill God’s Law (this is called Christ’s active obedience), and to take the punishment which we deserved for our sins, which is death (this is called Christ’s passive obedience). Christ’s victory over death is shown by His resurrection from the dead, because He has destroyed the power of death over all people. Jesus won that victory for all people and gives it as a gift to all who believe.

Where does faith come into this? God accomplished our salvation by working in history with the Israelites, through whom God entered our world and won salvation in the person of Jesus, the promised Son of David. The Israelites kept a record of how God worked in history to bring about our salvation, so that everyone could hear about it and believe. God’s Word is the truth, and God doesn’t ask us to believe a myth or a fable (as some wrongly claim), but He presents us with the truth and asks us to believe the truth. Salvation couldn’t be any easier, because God did it all for us, and only asks us to believe in what He has already done. No person on earth should ever be condemned to hell because Jesus paid for their sins and gives them eternal salvation as a free gift. (see Romans 5:15-17 and 6:23)

Where does hell come into this? Jesus teaches that hell was never intended for people because ever since the very day that Adam and Eve rebelled against God and brought sin to all people, God promised a savior who would make everything right. In Matthew 25:41, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, Jesus describes hell as “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” There was never any redemption possible for the fallen angels, but there was always redemption for fallen people through faith in God’s promise of salvation (fulfilled in Jesus Christ). There never was any reason for any person to be condemned to hell. 

Then why are some people condemned to hell? The only reason why some people are condemned to hell is that they reject Christ’s salvation. Jesus teaches in John 3:17-18, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” A person who does not believe God’s Word effectively is calling God a liar, and making themselves their own god. The unbeliever condemns himself because he rejects everything that God has done to save him. Romans 8:33-34 says, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” God is all about saving us, not about condemning us. Jesus took the condemnation for our sins so that we would not have to. 

Why would God die on a cross for me as a man?
He did it because He loves you.

The best question to ask is: What kind of a God would suffer and die on a cross to save sinners from death and hell? This shows the fallacy inherent in the original question. God is not about sending people to hell. Jesus suffered hell on the cross so that no one else would have to. Those who love their sins more than Jesus are condemning themselves because they reject the salvation that is theirs in Christ. It is not that God takes away their salvation or doesn’t give it to them. All people are given forgiveness and salvation as a free gift, and unbelievers, through their unbelief, say, “I don’t want it.” This is why we say that those people who are in hell are there by their own doing, and those who are in heaven are there completely by what Jesus has done for them. The answer to this last question is that the one, true God is the one who loves you, and wants to save you, and is not ashamed to be found dead on a cross and in a grave. Jesus did this to save you from hell. Trust in Jesus. He will not let anyone who believes in Him suffer as He did on the cross.

How Far does God go to Keep His Promises?

(and promises made in His name)
by Pastor Paul Wolff

David playing the harp

There is an odd little story in 2 Samuel 21 about God sending a famine against the Kingdom of Israel in the days of King David. What is strange is that by this time the Kingdom is pretty well established, and seemingly out of nowhere, God is punishing His people with an extended famine. When David asked God what was the reason for the famine, God answered that this was in response to something King Saul had done. What Saul had done was to attempt to destroy the Gibeonites, who were an Amorite people living in the land since before the days of Joshua.

The beginning of the story is found in Deuteronomy 7:1-6 in the days of Moses. God tells Moses and the Israelites that when He brings them into the land He had promised to Abraham and his descendants, they are to completely destroy all the peoples living there, including the Amorites and others. The Israelites were not to intermarry with them, nor make any treaty or covenant with them, but they must devote them to complete destruction. The peoples of Canaan were idolaters, and the Israelites were to completely destroy their altars and places of worship lest they fall into idolatry and come under God’s curse themselves (which they did from time to time.) God was very clear in His instructions about how they ought to deal with the people of Canaan.

Joshua made a treaty in God's name with the Gibeonites

Many years later, in the days of Joshua (see Joshua 9), the inhabitants of Gibeon heard that the Israelites had destroyed Jericho and Ai and they feared that they soon would be next. They devised a plan to trick the Israelites to make a treaty with them and not destroy them. The Gibeonites sent a delegation to Joshua dressed in old worn out clothes and shoes. The bread they had with them was dry and moldy, and their wine-skins were old and patched. They said they were from a very distant country and wanted to make a treaty with the Israelites. They said that when they left their home their bread was fresh out of the oven, and their wine-skins and shoes were new. The Israelites sampled their provisions, but they did not seek the counsel of the Lord. Joshua made a covenant with them and swore in the name of the Lord to let them live.

Three days later, Joshua heard that the Gibeonites were their neighbors. The Israelites did not attack them, because of the oath that they made not to harm them, but they summoned their leaders and said, “Why did you deceive us?” The Gibeonites were very gracious, and humbled themselves before Joshua and the Israelites. They told of how they had heard how God had commanded Moses to destroy all the inhabitants in the land, and they feared for their lives. They said, “We are your servants, do whatever seems good and right.” Joshua cursed the Gibeonites to be the servants of the Israelites, being woodcutters and water bearers, but he honored the treaty he made with them and let them live. For their part, it seems that the Gibeonites were just glad to escape God’s judgment on the Canaanites, and they lived at peace with the Israelites and did not betray their part of the treaty.

The Israelites also kept their part of the treaty until King Saul tried to destroy the Gibeonites. Another strange part of this story is that Saul’s part in this story is not found elsewhere in Scripture. Apparently the chronicler who wrote the Book of Samuel did not think this particular misdeed of Saul’s was an important part of the story in a chronological telling, and he did not mention it until he wrote of God bringing the famine in 2 Samuel 21. David, however, knew the history (or looked it up in Scripture), and called the surviving Gibeonite leaders and said, “What shall I do for you to make atonement that you may bless the Lord’s inheritance?”

The rainbow is God's sign to Noah that He would not
destroy the earth again with a flood even though
the thoughts of man are only evil all the time.
Genesis 6:5 and 8:21

The Gibeonites were still very humble and submissive before King David, as their ancestors had been hundreds of years earlier with Joshua, and hesitated to make demands to the King, but David repeated, “What shall I do for you?” They asked that seven of Saul’s remaining male descendants would be given to them to be put to death for justice for all the Gibeonites that Saul killed. David agreed to their terms, but he spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, because of the friendship he had with the son of King Saul. God honored this agreement and lifted the famine.

All of this begs the question: Why would God go to such great lengths to punish Israel for Saul’s misdeeds, many years after Saul had died, on behalf of a people whom He had condemned for destruction hundreds of years earlier, for the sake of a treaty Joshua had made against God’s command? The answer is that God keeps His promises. Or, in this case, God honors the promises made by His people in His name and on His behalf. Despite the fact that God had intended for the Gibeonites to be destroyed with all the inhabitants of Canaan, Joshua had sworn an oath in God’s name that the Gibeonites would not be harmed by the Israelites, and when Saul broke that treaty, God allowed the Gibeonites restitution for the sake of justice, and the honor of God’s name.

If God would go to these great lengths to keep this promise made in His name, even though He never wanted it in the first place, then what does this say about how God will regard His other promises? It shows that God can absolutely be trusted to keep all His promises, no matter what happens.

The very day that Adam and Eve sinned
God promised to send a savior
who would rescue them from their sin.

The main promise that God fulfilled was the promise He made to Adam and Eve when He cursed the serpent in Genesis 3:15. God promised to send the seed of the woman to crush the serpent’s head, though the serpent would bruise his heel. God remembered this promise, even though he destroyed the evil people in the days of Noah, but he saved Noah and his three sons, and each man’s wife (eight people). Likewise when Israel had turned against God and refused to listen to the prophets calling for repentance, God destroyed the ten northern tribes, and nearly wiped out the kingdom of Judah, but He saved a remnant among whom were the descendants of King David who would be the ancestors of Jesus. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s greatest promise. He is a descendant of Adam and Eve through His mother, Mary, and conceived miraculously by the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is God incarnate, who paid for the sins of the world with His perfect obedience, and His innocent suffering and death in our place on the cross.

Compared with the Incarnation of God in Jesus, and the redemption He won for our forgiveness and salvation, the incident with the Gibeonites is of little consequence, but it shows that God honors His promises, and He can be trusted to remain faithful in big promises, and small.

We all ought to see ourselves in a similar situation as the Gibeonites. As the Gibeonites were condemned to destruction for their idolatry, so we are condemned to destruction for our idolatry and other sins. As Joshua promised to spare the Gibeonites, so the greater Joshua (the name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the name, Joshua, meaning, “savior”) has promised to spare us from the punishment due us on account of our sin, because He paid the price and satisfied God’s wrath by dying in our place.

Job’s friends were no comfort when they
misrepresented God’s promises.
Worldly wealth is not a sign of God’s favor,
and poverty is not a sign of God’s disfavor.

Christians ought to be careful when their preachers or anyone make claims about the things God has promised. False teachers make claims about God’s promises which are not true. For example, the “prosperity gospel (sic)” heretics will tell you all day long that you will be rich and successful. However, just because God blessed Abraham and Job with great riches, that doesn’t mean that you will be likewise blessed. God could ask you to suffer like Job, or it is possible that you life may be like the beggar, Lazarus, in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Our reward is in heaven, not on earth. Always check your pastor’s claims against the Holy Scriptures. Even when your pastor quotes the Scriptures, double check the context of the passages which are being quoted, to make sure they really say what is being claimed. This goes for my parishioners, too. We all ought to be like the Berean Christians in Acts 17:11 who examined the Scriptures daily to see that the things that Saint Paul was preaching were true. (They found that indeed, he was preaching the truth. Jesus is the promised savior that the Old Testament foretold.)

Here is a sampling of a few of God’s promises which we can rely upon:

Hebrews 13:5-6 says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for (God) has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” God will never leave us, though, in His mercy, He remains hidden from our senses. This is a matter of faith, but since we can trust in God’s promises we can trust that it is true even (and especially) when it seems like we are alone and abandoned. This passage quotes from several places where it is repeated in the Old Testament. Some common sources are Deuteronomy 31, Psalm 37, and a couple phrases in Isaiah 41 also teach this.

Jesus said, “I am with you always,
to the end of the age.”

Jesus also repeats this at His final teaching before His ascension into heaven. In Matthew 28:20 Jesus says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is a great comfort especially when it seems like God is far away from us and the world is falling apart around us.

More of Christ’s promises are found in Matthew 10:32-42 where Jesus said, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a persons enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophets reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous persons reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” This is a comforting passage in times of antagonism and persecution, when the world turns against us and tries to get us to deny the forgiveness and salvation we have in Christ, our Lord. The world wants us to consider that they are gods and to worship and honor them, as they worship and honor themselves and others. There is no salvation there, but only in Christ Jesus. Jesus promises us persecution, but when we remember that He is always with us, and that He will honor a faithful confession in His heavenly Kingdom, then we can stand against the world even if we otherwise stand alone. Christ will have the final word on Judgment day, when He will bring His people with Him to live with Him forever in glory.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The True Power of God’s Word

by Pastor Paul Wolff

The Power of God’s Word is seen
when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead
by simply saying, “Lazarus, come out.” (John 11)

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” 

(Isaiah 55:10-11)

Words are very often seen as weak, malleable things that can be twisted and turned into unrecognizable things bearing little resemblance to their original meaning. You know it is bad when even in literature words are disparaged. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius sees Hamlet reading a book and asks, “What do you read, my lord?” and Hamlet answers, “Words, words, words.” Which is to say, the content of the words doesn’t matter – they are just words.

The problem isn’t with words themselves. When used properly, words can be used for great things even in this sinful world. The problem is that sinful people misuse words. Sinners use words to lie, cheat, and twist and spin the truth. Even when people speak the truth, people can ignore good words. This all makes words seem weak and ineffective.

All people are descended from Adam and Eve.
God created one race of people and two sexes.
There still remains one race and two sexes.

For example, in the beginning God created one race of people and two genders – male and female. Today people twist words to say that there are many races and many genders. Some people even say that they are a different gender than what God created them to be. Despite what people say, there is still one human race, and only male and female genders. What people say does not change the reality of the world, it just makes people look foolish, and it makes us distrust words.

Sinners go to great lengths to justify their sin to themselves. Thieves say, “I didn’t steal that thing which didn’t belong to me. I just ‘borrowed’ it.” Or adulterers say, “I didn’t cheat or betray my wife (or husband, as the case may be), it was true love.” Well, “love” is a powerful word. Who can be against “love”? But when “love” is used to justify even the worst kind of betrayal or all kinds of sexual perversions, then it is just a “word”.

Jesus taught God’s Word, and many people
heard it and were saved, but some
did not believe and were condemned.

Since words are so weak and untrustworthy, you have to wonder why God uses words as a primary Means of Grace – that is, the means by which God delivers to you the salvation that Jesus won for you in His life and death. If words are so weak, can you really trust God’s Word either? That is the wrong question. It needs to be asked, but it is the wrong question. Of course you can trust God’s Word, as long as it truly comes from God. The Holy Scriptures are the true Word of God. A better question to ask is why do people misuse words so much? It is because God relies so much on His Word that the devil tempts us to lie and otherwise misuse words so that we don’t even trust the Word of God.

God does not misuse words. God does not lie or twist the truth when He speaks. God’s Word can be trusted and relied upon to be true at all times and in all places. More than that, God’s Word has power to do what it says. In Isaiah 55, God tells us, “My Word goes out from my mouth (and) will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

God said, “Let there be light,”
and there was light, and the light was good.

We see this very clearly in the creation account in Genesis 1. On Day One God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light, and the light was good. Likewise, on each of the first six days of creation, God created the universe by speaking it into existence, and ordering it according to His will. God’s Word has power, and it is good, as God is good.
When people speak it does not change the reality of the world, but when God speaks, He can change the world.

Even when Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate the forbidden fruit, God came to them that very day and had mercy on them and in cursing the serpent, God promised to send an offspring of the woman to crush the head of the serpent, and bring salvation to people. God kept His promise, and Jesus came as the Son of God to fulfill the law in our place, and to pay the price for our sin, which is death. In doing this, Jesus won our forgiveness and eternal salvation. God’s promises are not like the promises of wicked and devious sinners. God’s promises can be trusted.

God remembered His promise to Adam
and Eve,and saved Noah and his family
from the great flood.

When God determined to destroy the world in the days of Noah, He remembered His promise to Adam and Eve and spared Noah and his three sons, and each man’s wife, along with two of every kind of animal on the surface of the earth. Also, later when the Israelites turned away from God to idols, though God sent the Assyrians to destroy the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and the Babylonians to destroy Judah, He saved a remnant of the Judahites (or Jews, as they came to be known) so that His promise could be fulfilled, and the savior of the world would be born from their descendants.

One day when Jesus had entered the city of Capernaum (Matthew 8:5-13), a centurion came to Him and asked Him to heal his servant who was paralyzed and suffering. Jesus said, “I will go and heal him.” The centurion said to Jesus, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one,’Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Jesus was astonished at the faith of the centurion, and said, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant has healed at that very hour. A centurion’s word can command his soldiers and servants, but the Word of Jesus can command healing and bring life where there is death. Jesus also raised Lazarus from the dead by calling out to his grave, “Lazarus come out.” At the word of Jesus, Lazarus was given life after being dead four days. (John 11)

Jesus is the Word of God made flesh.

This is why John writes that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. Jesus is not only the fulfillment of God’s promises to send a savior into the world, but Jesus is God, Himself, become incarnate into our flesh to take away the guilt of our sins and give us salvation and eternal life. Because Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, you can trust God’s Word more than anything else in this world. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (Matthew 24:35)

God’s Word is eternal, and God will never forget or take away his promised forgiveness and salvation. Psalm 105:8 says, “(The Lord our God) remembers His covenant forever, the word He commanded, for a thousand generations.” Isaiah (40:8) prophesies, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” So when God’s Word says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” You can know that Jesus will save you, because he remembers and keeps His promises forever.

God’s Word is freely spread among all people,
like a farmer throwing seed all over his land
so that everyone who believes in Jesus will be saved.

God’s Word is a means of grace. That is to say, God’s Word is a delivery vehicle for our forgiveness and salvation. We can’t get to God to get forgiveness and salvation from God, but God comes to us where we are in His Word and Sacraments. In the words Christ’s Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23), God’s Word is a farmer who brings the seed which gives us salvation. Like the farmer, God spreads His Word freely, to all people, that it may accomplish salvation. As the seed is generously spread on all the different soils on the farm, so God’s Word goes throughout all the world so that it may bring forgiveness and salvation to all who believe.

I wondered above why God would use something as weak as words to bring to us our salvation, but it is by God’s grace that He uses words to bring this great treasure to us here today. Because words are weak they can be rejected. Anyone who doesn’t want Christ’s forgiveness and salvation can reject it. God won’t force anyone to receive His salvation. He gives it as a free gift. So those who are saved are saved completely by the work of Christ without any help or cooperation on our part. Those who are condemned, on the other hand, are condemned by their own doing.

God’s Word was made flesh in Jesus
but He had to live in obedience to the Father,
and suffer and die to save us from our sins.

Our salvation comes to us through God’s Word, but it was won for you by the actions and work of Jesus. God is a just God, and according to His nature, He could not just wipe away sin with a word and pretend it didn’t matter. If he had done so, he would have either had to accept sin – and become evil Himself – or He would have had to destroy us all with our sin. So in order to save us, and still punish sin, Jesus offered to take our place as our substitute. Jesus had to live as a man and live a perfectly obedient life in order to fulfill God’s Law which we broke. Then Jesus had to suffer and die in our place to take away the punishment for our sins, which is death. The Word of God is completed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Because Jesus worked to win our forgiveness and salvation in His life, God’s Word is fulfilled, and salvation comes to us today through the Word, so that whoever believes in Jesus as their savior from sin, is saved.

Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is [God’s] word that goes out from [His] mouth: It will not return to [Him] empty, but will accomplish what [He] desire(s) and achieve the purpose for which [He] sent it.” God’s purpose and desire is that you believe in Jesus and receive His salvation, and live with Him in Paradise forever. Jesus is your life and your salvation. He is the truth that saves you. We thank and praise Him for His Word that brings to us this precious gift.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christ is For You

by Pastor Paul Wolff

"Given for you
for the forgiveness of your sins

In Dr. Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, in explaining who receives the Lord’s Supper worthily, Luther explains that when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, the words “for you” (Luke 22:19-20; 1 Corinthians 11:24) require all hearts to believe. Contrary to what unbelievers fear, Jesus isn’t asking us to believe anything that isn’t true, or that may be impossible to believe. It is, of course, true that one cannot believe that Jesus is your savior from sin when you refuse to believe that you are guilty of sin, or if you do not believe that your sin deserves God’s wrath and condemnation. But the problem there among unbelievers isn’t that they haven’t sinned against God, nor that their sin isn’t worthy of eternal condemnation, nor that the salvation won by Jesus on the cross is insufficient to rescue them from all their sin and its condemnation. No, the problem among unbelievers is that although the salvation won by Jesus more than makes up for their sins, and completely satisfies the wrath of God, the Father, so that there is no threat of punishment for anyone who believes in Jesus as their savior, and although that salvation comes to everyone who believes as a gift; the unbeliever rejects the gift, and also rejects the forgiveness and salvation that come along with it.

The unbeliever has access to forgiveness and salvation, just as believers do, but because they refuse to believe, they do not receive the benefits of that forgiveness and salvation. It is as if your Father said, “I have deposited a million dollars into a bank account in your name. It is for you to live on and invest for your needs for the rest of your life.” If you believe that your Father is telling the truth, you will access the money in that account when you have need, and you will receive the benefits of that gift. On the other hand, if you do not believe that he is telling the truth (even though He is), or you don’t want the gift, or you want to earn your own way through life – though for reasons you do not understand, you are unable to do so – then you will not receive the benefits of your Father’s gift, even though it is always there and waiting for you to use it.

A savior is born to you

This is also what the angel told the shepherds in Bethlehem on the night that Jesus was born. The angel said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12) This sounds like a funny thing to say that this baby (who was unknown to them at the time) was born “unto you”, but the blessings of Jesus would come to them because they believed the Word of God that the angel gave them. So because they believed, they received the blessings of God’s gift in Christ.

It was also kind of strange that the angel said to the Bethlehem shepherds that Jesus was born for them, but he didn’t say this to Mary when he visited her nine months earlier. We would assume that a child was born for his father and mother, but the angel didn’t say that, lest Mary would think that the child was born for her alone. Mary certainly did believe, and she did receive the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus won for the world, but she knew that her firstborn son did not come to benefit her alone, but His salvation would be for the whole world. That is why Mary called her son, “my savior” (Luke 1:47) in the Magnificat which she sang when she visited Elizabeth, her relative, and mother of John the Baptizer.

Mary recognized that she was blessed, but other than that, she realized that she was nothing special. Later on, during Christ’s ministry (Luke 11:27-28), a woman tried to give the blessed virgin mother more credit than what was due to her when she said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Jesus was neither insulting His mother, nor was he trying to say that she was not blessed. Jesus was saying that Mary was not blessed because she was the one woman in all of history who gave birth to the savior of the world, instead, she was blessed because she believed that her firstborn son, conceived in her by God, the Holy Spirit, would save her from her sins. In this way, Mary is like all believers. Everyone who believes in Jesus as their savior has the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus won for us all when He died on the cross. The Holy Scriptures say this many times:

“To him (Jesus) all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)

God's Christmas gift to the world
His own Son to save us

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Rom 1:16)

“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Rom 10:4)

“For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’” (Rom 10:11)

“Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.” (1 John 5:1)

Because the Salvation of Jesus comes as a gift (see Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 3:24; Romans 5:15-17 for example) it is available for free to all who believe in Jesus as their savior from sins. You are just as blessed as Mary if you believe in Jesus as your savior, as Mary also did. Because salvation is a precious gift from God to you, this is why Christians celebrate the birth of our savior by praising God on Christmas, and giving one another gifts in recognition of the priceless gift that God gave us in sending His own Son to be our savior.

Christ bless you this Christmas, and always. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Is it Easier to Heal, or to Forgive?

by Pastor Paul Wolff

Jesus raised Jairus' Daughter from the dead

(Matthew 9:1-8)
Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”
Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” And the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.

A paralyzed man was brought to Jesus, and when He saw the man, and the first thing He said to him was, “Take heart, son, your sins are forgiven.” This seems like a strange thing to say. I don’t think that this paralyzed man’s friends brought him to have his sins forgiven. He had most likely heard of the miraculous healings Jesus had done wherever He went, and he desired to walk again.
The paralyzed man likely thought that it was more important for him that he would be able to walk, than to have his sins forgiven. But Jesus saw this man and his greatest need, and He addressed it right away. The man’s greatest need was not that he could not walk, but his greatest need was that he was a sinner. He needed his sins forgiven. And so Jesus dealt with that immediately, saying “My son, your sins are forgiven.”

Adam and Eve brought sin and condemnation
to themselves and to all people.

We, too, need to recognize that our greatest need is that our sins are forgiven. Sin makes us enemies with God, and as long as we are guilty of sin we are subject to God’s punishment. If our sins are forgiven, then God is no longer our enemy, but our greatest friend and protector. All problems, all trouble, all sorrow in this life are a result of sin. So the greatest thing that we can have is the forgiveness of Jesus.

Some of the people who were there with Jesus heard what He said to the paralyzed man, and they were thinking to themselves, “This man is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins, but God?” Well, this is true indeed! However, they didn’t recognize that Jesus is God. There He was standing there in front of them: God in the flesh! But they couldn’t see it. They thought, “this man is insulting God by saying that he could forgive sins.” Well, Jesus is God, and He can forgive sins. Jesus also knew what they were thinking, by His divine power, and so He asked them, “Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Rise and walk’”?

We can answer Jesus’ question on several levels. On one level, it is easy to say anything. It doesn’t take much effort to say something if you are not too particular about what it is you are saying. But of course, this is trivial. Most of us do take some care about what we say, and this is especially true for Jesus.

On another level, we can look at it and say, it is much easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” rather than say, “Get up and walk”. You can say, “Your sins are forgiven” but there is no outward indication to show if your sins really are forgiven or if they aren’t. We can’t tell just by looking at a person and say, “This person’s sins are forgiven” or “That person’s sins are not forgiven.” So in that sense it is easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” because you really can’t tell if it has been done. God knows, but we don’t. We can’t see forgiveness. We don’t know. We have to live by faith. In the same way, if you were to say to a person, “Get up and walk” and that person does not get up and walk, then you are exposed as being a charlatan, or speaking nonsense, or giving this person hope that you can’t fulfill. So it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” rather than “Get up and walk” if you don’t have the power to make that person get up and walk. But Jesus did have the power to make that man get up and walk.

Jesus did not, however, tell the man “Your sins are forgiven” because it was easier for Him to say that rather than “Get up and walk.” Jesus had the power both to forgive sins and to heal the man from his paralysis, but Jesus dealt with what was most important first. The man’s greatest problem was his sin, so Jesus first declared that his sins were forgiven. But then to show that He did have the power not only to forgive sins, but also to heal him, He told the man, “Get up and walk” and the man was healed and stood up. By doing this great miracle, Jesus showed those who were there that He did also have the power to forgive sins. If this man, Jesus, could make a paralyzed man get up and walk, which no one else had the power to do, then He certainly also had the power to forgive sins. That was one thing that Jesus was showing by this great miracle. Jesus was also showing that He has compassion for all our needs of body and soul.

Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.

The paralyzed man had more needs than just having his sins forgiven. He was paralyzed and had the need for healing. Though, it would have been all right for him to go through life as a paralyzed man, and yet have his sins forgiven. He could have lived his life as a paralytic, trusting in God to forgive him, and to provide for his other bodily needs, and he would be saved just like all other believers. You should remember that, at some point in history, that man died, and we should all agree that being dead is a much worse condition than being paralyzed. On the last day when Jesus calls him out of his grave, he will be restored to full health, and full strength, and he will be walking and rejoicing in God with a full, strong body forever and ever. Jesus, however, saw the man’s immediate physical needs as well as his spiritual needs and had compassion on him. He restored to him his ability to walk, in addition to forgiving his sins.

Besides the question that Jesus asks, “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Get up and walk’?” I think we can contemplate another question Jesus did not ask, but is important for us to consider. Which is easier to DO: to heal a man who is paralyzed, or to forgive sins? Now, even today, depending on what is the cause of paralysis, in nearly all cases, healing paralysis is still an impossibility even for the most skilled doctors. If someone has a damaged spine, and cannot walk it is virtually impossible for modern medicine to heal them. Many doctors have tried different treatments, but sometimes it is just impossible. For a severe injury, if you cannot walk, you will never walk. And yet, physical problems often have physical cures. It may be possible sometime in the future to develop some healing that we cannot do now. So we may hold out some small hope for that possibility. It is now impossible, though some time in the future, it may be possible. On the other hand, it is absolutely impossible for sinful man to forgive sins.

We sinners cannot accomplish the forgiveness of sins on our own. We cannot do anything that could appease God of our own doing alone, much less for anyone else’s sins. We are guilty of sins, each of us, as we have inherited that guilt going all the way back to Adam and Eve. Even if we could overcome our own sins, we could not overcome someone else’s, and we can’t even overcome our own sins. People sometimes think that if we do enough good that we can make up for sin, but God has given us His commandments. We ought to be doing good in everything we do. How can we do more than everything to overcome our sins, especially once we are guilty of sin? It is impossible. We cannot overcome sins. God says, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) You might, then, think that death might be enough to overcome our sins, but as sinners, to suffer that death would destroy us. We would be destroyed by death on account of our sin. We cannot overcome sin. It is impossible.

Only God can accomplish the redemption of our sins, and in God, only Jesus can do it. God, in His nature, is an eternal Spirit. He cannot die. But in Jesus, God has become a man in order to be able to die and to pay the price for our sins. Because Jesus is a man, He could die for our sins. He could pay the price to redeem us from our sins. And in His grace, Jesus desired to do all that was needed to win forgiveness for us, and so He became a man. As a man Jesus put himself in a place where he could do what was necessary to pay for our sins. He could live the perfect life that we were unable to do, to keep God’s Ten Commandments that we were unable to keep in our sin, so that He could present Himself before the Father as the perfect atoning sacrifice, and to offer His life in payment for ours. This is what it takes to accomplish our forgiveness. God does not overlook sin. He cannot do that in His nature. He is a just God. Sin must be punished, but Jesus took the punishment in our place, as our substitute.

Your Forgiveness was won through
the death of Jesus on the cross.
And the benefits come to you through faith.

This is why it is good for us to ask, “which is easier to do.” What does it take to forgive our sins? It wasn’t just as if Jesus had said, ‘your sins are forgiven, I’ll overlook it this time.’ In order for Jesus to forgive sins, He had to go to the cross. He had to suffer and die to pay for those sins, and for the sins of the world. It was not easy for Jesus to do that. It was more than just saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” It was putting that into action: going to the cross; suffering and dying; having sinners put the crown of thorns on His head; and they beat Him and slapped Him and insulted Him; nailing His hands and feet to the cross; and Jesus remained up on that cross while people were insulting Him and laughing at Him. The worst part of His death was that Jesus felt God, the Father, forsaking Him on account of our sin. He felt God’s wrath over the sins of the world, which He had nothing to do with, but that He was carrying in His body to take away from us. All of this is what it took for Jesus to forgive our sins. Jesus did all these things out of love for us all. He did these so that our sins would be taken away from us, that we might have life forever.

It was not easy for Jesus to do this, but He did it out of love for us. Which is easier? It was not easy for Jesus to do, but He did what was necessary to forgive our sins. So that when we hear the pastor telling us, “Your sins are forgiven, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is true. It has been done. Jesus did what was necessary. The pastor speaks words to us, but it is more than words, it is what Jesus has done for us. Those words are God’s Word that comes to us to give us life and salvation, to heal us from our sins. This is what we have in the Word of God. This is what Jesus brings to us through His Word, and through the Sacraments, that we receive the forgiveness of Jesus. That we receive what He paid for us. This is the great gift of God which gives us life.

It was not easy for Jesus to do, but He did it all for you, and for that you should thank and praise God that you have such a savior in Jesus. May Jesus strengthen your faith to know that you are forgiven. That He has done everything necessary to redeem you, to make you His Child. That you might live in that faith, trusting in Jesus to forgive your sins, and on the last day you will be raised in glorious life to live with God forever.
Jesus said,
“Let not your heart be troubled.
I have gone to prepare a place for you.”

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Economics of Christ’s Salvation

by Pastor Paul Wolff

Money bag for helping your neighbor

Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26-27)

If you listen too much to what the world says about Jesus, and don’t know your Bible very well, then you might be surprised to hear Jesus say that you cannot be His disciple unless you hate your father & mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even your own life!

Even those who are ignorant of the Bible, if they know anything at all about Jesus, they know that He said, “Love your neighbor.” Of course, the world (and even some unbelievers in the church) would then go on to define “love” to mean whatever they want it to mean, including some things which the Scriptures and Jesus clearly forbid and condemn, such as any kind of lust and adultery, including pre-marital intimacy, sexual promisquity, and homosexual activity.

Jesus taught the Scriptures
in a Nazareth Synagogue

Although the world doesn’t have a clue how to properly read the Bible, Christians should be aware that any interpretation which contradicts the Holy Scriptures is false. You can’t play one Scripture passage against another, so as to say, “Well, there Jesus says to love, and here he says to hate, so I guess I get to choose which one I will follow today. Tomorrow I may choose the other, but it’s my choice.” That is false, and you are always going to fall into sin if you do that.

It is also a sin to view this as a contradiction, and without trying to resolve the apparent contradiction, say, “Since the Bible seems to contradict itself, then it is not the infallible word of God and cannot be trusted, so I can go do what I want and you can’t say anything against me.” Now, if the Bible really did contradict itself, then it could not be trusted, but the Holy Scriptures truly are the Word of God and they do not contradict one another at all! What seems like contradictions in the Bible are only apparent contradictions, and they can easily be resolved and you can still maintain both sides as being true in every case.

In this case, the proper question must be, “How can you hate your neighbor (in a godly way), and still love him at the same time?” This isn’t that hard, really. Remember that the Scriptures say that all people are sinners from the time we are conceived (Psalm 51:5) so we can hate the sinfulness both in our neighbor, and in ourselves, and we can still love them as those for whom Christ died to redeem (even if they don’t acknowledge Christ’s saving work.) We can also acknowledge that Jesus is using hyperbole (or exaggeration) to make the point that you should love Him so much that it seems like you hate everyone else. This is not to say that we should hate as if we would wish our neighbor were dead, but that we should love God above all else and despise sin in ourselves and our neighbor.

The Sower sowing his seed

This is how it works in practice: I have heard of situations where an elderly person comes to the faith, but then has doubts in regard to a loved one. It could be a beloved husband or wife, a child or a parent, or a sibling. But some people actually lose their faith and say, “If my beloved is not in heaven then I don’t want to go there.” This kind of person is what Jesus was talking about in the Parable of the Sower. He is like the seed which falls on the unfit soil. This person quickly loses the faith that could have saved them. It is tragic arrogance to think that you are more righteous than God Himself. Do people really think that they are a better judge than the all-knowing God? Jesus is the Good Shepherd who knows His sheep, and will never let even one go astray without going out and bringing him or her back into the flock. Also, don’t think that anyone will find any friends in hell. There is no love in hell, and those who may have loved you earth will only hate you and torment you in hell. While our loved ones are still alive we may try to lead them to find their salvation in Jesus, but once they have died we must leave their fate to the mercy of God and trust that Christ’s Judgment is always just and merciful. This is what Jesus is warning us about in Luke 14. Count the cost.

There is a cost to being a Christian. Don’t be fooled by the false teachers of our age who promise that being a Christian is all about unfailing success and prosperity. That doesn’t get you too far when a Jihadist puts a knife to your throat and asks you if you are a Christian. Martyrdom is not part of the prosperity gospel, but it can be part of the Christian life. Martyrdom is an extreme cost, and not all Christians are murdered because of their confession of Christ, but there is a cost to being a Christian.

Symbols representing Saints Peter, James & John

Revelation 7:14 calls the Christian life a “great tribulation” which recognizes the Christian life as a battle or a war. The Christian life is a battle because we must fight against sin and temptation. The pagan life is not a battle in the same way because the unbeliever sees no need to resist temptation. In some ways it is easier to be an unbeliever because they don’t have to fight against their own sinful flesh. They may indulge any sinful desire and not worry about any consequences. There are consequences and costs to the pagan life, too, but I will get to that shortly. Proverbs 8:13 says, “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.” So Christians also hate evil and fight against temptation, even when our own flesh says, “I want to do wrong. I need to do that sin. I will die if I don’t do that sin.” Yes, the sinful flesh is a drama queen, but temptation can be compelling to our weak flesh. That is why we must fight against temptation. It hurts to deny the flesh its sinful desires, but that is one of the costs of being a Christian.

Think of the Beatitudes. Jesus doesn’t say, “Blessed are the rich and powerful who always get their way and are happy all the time.” It is only the heretics who say that! Jesus says: 

  • Blessed are the poor in Spirit
  • Blessed are those who mourn
  • Blessed are the meek
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness
  • Blessed are the merciful
  • Blessed are the pure in heart
  • Blessed are the peacemakers
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake
  • Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of (Jesus).

Christians aren’t blessed because they mourn or are meek, or do any of the other things. They are blessed because Christ gives them good gifts which rescue them and make up for their sorrow and pain in this sinful life.

Job's suffering
(window from Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Detroit)

So Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” Remember that when Jesus said this, the cross was not a gold or silver-plated piece of jewelry that you proudly wear around your neck to proclaim your forgiveness and salvation in Christ. When Jesus said this the cross was the most shameful method of torture and death used to shame and humiliate the most despised criminals. So to take up your cross and follow Jesus is to recognize that you are a sinner and only deserve death, so you count your life and possessions as forfeited for Christ’s sake and look to Him to save you from sin and death, as He has promised to do.

That leads us to the other part of counting the cost – the benefits! You should also add the benefits when you count the cost. The benefits of being a Christian include: 1) complete forgiveness of all your sins – through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus; 2) reconciliation with God, the Father, and with that – adoption as His beloved child; 3) Sanctification by God the Holy Spirit; 4) resurrection to everlasting life; and 5) an eternity of joy with all the countless brothers and sisters in Christ who are likewise redeemed. These benefits are worth more than the whole world. That is why St. Paul could say in Philippians 3:7-9, “Whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”

Jesus paid the price for your sin

You should also know that although your forgiveness and salvation is free to you as a gift from God, it was not won without its own cost. In fact, your salvation was only won at a very high cost: which was the entire life and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus. When God was planning your salvation in eternity before the creation, the Son of God also had to consider the cost. Although God created the first people perfect, and without sin; yet, Adam and Eve soon rebelled against God and brought His condemnation upon themselves and their children. Yet despite their rebelliousness and lack of gratitude for all that God had given them, the Son of God loved them enough to take their punishment on Himself and was willing to endure the indignity and pain of crucifixion and also to endure the Father’s wrath of a world full of sinners.

Yes, there is a cost to being a Christian, but the cost is very small in relation to the benefits. What would you do? Would you rather indulge the pleasures of the sinful flesh for a short time (and suffer all the temporal consequences of that wickedness), and then suffer an eternity of torment with no hope of relief? Or would you rather deny yourself the guilty pleasures of sin and live in the hope and confidence of God’s love for you in Christ Jesus, and then enjoy an eternity of pleasures of God’s gracious gift of life and salvation? St. Paul wrote, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) No one likes to suffer. Even Jesus wasn’t all too thrilled with the prospect of suffering and death (see Matthew 26:36-46), but out of love for God and for you, He willingly suffered and died to save you.

There is a cost to being a Christian, but God did not ask you to pay the price for your sin. Instead, God sent His own Son to pay the terrible price for your sin to redeem you and adopt you as His child to give you an eternity of life with Him in Paradise. It is only because of Jesus that we can live in this wicked world with hope of life and salvation. So we also join with St. Paul and all the saints and say, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)