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)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Widow’s Mite

by Pastor Paul Wolff

Jesus is the Good Samaritan
who rescued the man considered His "enemy"

Jesus taught, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:38-40)

Jesus warns us to beware of those who love worldly honor. Yet, who doesn’t love worldly honor? We all want people to like us and admire us. But the world doesn’t always treasure what God considers righteousness, and even when it does, those who seek praise make a pretense of righteousness and the public can be fooled.

St. John writes, “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:15-17) People are sinful and their desires are sinful. Worldly people will seek to corrupt you (if they haven’t already) in order that you will be more willing to go along with their sinful desires. At the very best, if you seek the world’s favor, they will only give it to you as long as they can get something in return. When you have nothing more to give, then the world will abandon you. There is no salvation in seeking the world’s favor and praise.

That is why James (4:4) writes, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” But understand that it is not as if God feels slighted or offended because you prefer someone else to Him. God loves you and wants you to be saved from your sins. If you seek other gods you are rejecting your only hope of salvation and will be lost.

Though the devil offered Jesus
the riches of the world,
He would not be diverted from His saving work

To illustrate this, Jesus watched the people putting money in the offering box. He noticed many rich people put in large sums of money. Jesus does not condemn them for this. It is not a sin to give large amounts of money to support the church – if God has so blessed you with wealth. The church needs money for maintenance, repair, salaries and the like. This is a good work. It is necessary for the spread of the Gospel. “Faith comes by hearing the Gospel.” How can anyone be saved if they don’t hear the message? So it is good to support the church with your tithes.

It is only a sin if you have the wrong attitude when making your offering, such as using your wealth to buy influence and control in the church. You might say, “I paid my dues, now I get to say how things are run around here.” That attitude forgets that neither the church nor your wealth belong to you – they belong to God. It is also a sin if you think your gift gets you closer to God, or makes God see you more favorably. God’s favor cannot be bought by giving to Him what belongs to Him anyway. Do you really think God will be impressed? Repent of this.

On the other hand, it is also a sin if you give all you have to the church and have nothing left for your family. It is a service to God to provide for the needs of your family. Though this, too, can be taken too far if you use your family as an excuse to get out of your obligations to the church. If you spoil your children by giving them every wicked thing they ask for, while the church is in decay and the staff is underpaid. That does no one any good – neither the church, nor your children.

Yet, instead of rebuking others for one reason or another, Jesus notices this one poor widow who put two pennies into the offering. Those who loved worldly honor and praise hardly noticed this poor widow. She could do nothing for them. Others probably didn’t take much notice of her either, but Jesus did.

Neither Mark, nor Jesus, give us her life story except to note that she is a widow, and, as such, she probably had no one to care for except herself. She apparently had no possessions to her name except those two pennies. In a way it would have made little difference to her if she spent those pennies on herself or gave it to the church. She might have been able to buy a meager amount of food for a small meal, but then she would soon have nothing again. Yet, she wanted to give her money to support the church. 

God often provides more than we need
in order that we may share with others in need

Why would she do this? Jesus doesn’t elaborate, but we can assume that this woman had great faith. She may have been almost completely destitute, but she was just grateful to be a child of God so that when she got two pennies she wanted to give them to God in thankfulness for His forgiveness and salvation, and trusting that God would see her need and provide what she needed.

God did see her and I trust that He gave her all she needed. She might never have gotten rich, but God certainly provided for her needs. We all would do well to emulate the faith of this woman.

I’m sure many sermons have been preached on this topic that said, “Be like her or else. Amen.” But if I stopped here I would be doing you a great disservice. If the only thing you get out of this Bible story is that you should strive to be like the poor widow, then you are likely to be condemned by that message.  If the lesson you take away from this is to try to emulate the widow because her actions are somehow more holy – then that would only lead you to become like the scribes who do their good works to receive something in return. 

You are most likely not like the widow in her faithfulness, but take heart – she wasn’t like that either. Well, she was, but not perfectly – not her whole life. It might have taken her losing husband and children and all her possessions for her to learn to trust in God enough to give her last two pennies in faith. She surely had many failures and sins along the way, as have you. But she wasn’t saved by her faith, nor by the large percentage of her meager possessions given to God on this one particular day. She was saved by Jesus.

You are not saved from sin and death by what you do. After you are dead, what can you do to bring yourself back to life? You can only be saved by Jesus. But then, in showing this poor widow’s offering, Jesus is teaching about what He, Himself, has done for you – not about what you should do for Him.

What made the widow special was that she gave everything she had out of love for Christ and His salvation. Now, it could have been made easier by the fact that her entire estate only included two pennies (mites), but most sinners would still put their trust in those two pennies to save them until they were gone, and then they might look to God out of desperation. Though even then, some people still would not look to God to save them even if they had nothing else to put their trust in. Jesus taught that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Though even poor people can make an idol out of what little they have – even two pennies. Yet, this woman’s offering didn’t save her. It wasn’t even her love and trust that saved her. If that was all she had, then it would surely be a case of: “too little – too late.” What saved her was Jesus. 

Though Christ was rich, for your sake he became poor
so that by His poverty, you may become rich.

In His essence, Jesus was not poor. Jesus is the eternal God. He created all things. Everything that exists belongs to Him. Nothing that you own or treasure so much really belongs to you. It all belongs to God. It is only by God’s gracious kindness that you have use of your possessions for a little while. We come into this world naked, and naked we shall depart. Yet, although Jesus is the creator and owner of all things, He gave up everything to pay for your sins so that you might have everything. Jesus came down from the glory of heaven to be conceived and born of the virgin Mary. He spent His first night out of the womb laying in a manger. He lived a humble life as the son of a carpenter, and in obedience to God and all His laws. Then He offered up His life as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. Jesus let sinful men nail His hands and His feet to the cross, and they shouted all kinds of blasphemous insults and lies at Him while He was suffering, and then he died. Jesus gave up everything – including His life – to pay the price for your sin. “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) “The soul that sins shall die.” (Ezekiel 18:4 & 18:20) Yet, God, Himself, in the person of Jesus, died in your place, so that you could have life forever more. Jesus gave up everything so that He could give you a share in the riches of His heavenly Kingdom.

It is because Jesus has done this that you can have the same love for God that the poor widow did in Mark 12. It is also because Jesus has done this for you that whenever you realize you frequently fall short of this ideal of faith and obedience, that you can turn to Christ in repentance and trust that He will forgive you all your sins and provide for all your needs. Since Christ has given all He had to rescue you from your sin and redeem you to be His children, you can be sure He will provide for all your needs – and then some. You may be rich, or you may never be rich, but in Christ you have the inheritance of God’s heavenly kingdom, which is worth far more than all the riches of the world.

Do not put your trust in yourself or in your riches or in your goodness. All these things will pass away, and none of them can save you. Put your trust in Jesus, who, though He was rich, became poor, so that through His poverty you might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9) Jesus has done everything necessary to save you from your sins and give you everlasting life. Trust in Jesus to save you. Let everything else go – it is all temporary anyway. Jesus, and His salvation is forever, and it is a sure thing. Jesus has paid for it all and has given it to you as a gift. Rejoice! Christ is your salvation.

Friday, December 25, 2015

God is With Us

by Pastor Paul Wolff

Emmanuel means “God is with us.”

God is with us in Jesus

God has always been with His people since He created Adam and Eve. Even when they rebelled against Him and became His enemy, He never abandoned them, but has kept all of us in His grace and providing for all our needs, especially the need for a savior from our sin. But, ever since God became incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ God has lived with us in a closer, and more wonderful way. In Jesus, God lives with us as a Man – sharing our flesh and blood, sharing our sorrows and joys, and sharing our pain and pleasures (except when we take pleasure in sin).

The one thing that Jesus does not share with us is the ultimate guilt of our sin. Jesus has taken the guilt of the whole world’s sin into Himself and carried it to the cross where He endured the punishment for all sin of all time and He took our guilt to the grave where it belongs. Then when Jesus arose to life from the dead we were freed from the guilt of our sins and heaven was opened to all who trust in Jesus as our Savior and God.

Jesus said, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:17) Jesus is with us to save us, not to condemn us – even though because of our sin we all only deserve condemnation. Even though Jesus ascended into heaven forty days after His resurrection from the dead, He is still with us. Immediately before He ascended into Heaven, Jesus said, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Heaven is not so far away from you as you may imagine. Jesus is nearby, closer than you may think.

Only one thing is needful.
Mary hath chosen that good part,
which shall not be taken away from her.

Emmanuel: God is with us in His word. When Jesus sent His apostles out on a short mission trip He told them, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.” (Luke 10:16) When we hear faithful pastors preaching and teaching God’s Word we are hearing Jesus because He is there working through His Word to lead us to trust in Him and rely on Him to save us. God’s Word is powerful to work our salvation because God is here working in His Word. God spoke through the prophet Isaiah saying, “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 forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)

Jesus was baptized to take on the
guilt of our sins and wash us clean

Emmanuel: God is with us in Holy Baptism. Jesus commanded His followers to baptize and teach in order to make disciples and spread His kingdom throughout the world. Baptism is not just a symbol of washing, but it is true washing and rebirth by God, the Holy Spirit. St. Peter wrote, “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Martin Luther showed that the power of Baptism is God working through His Word which is combined with the water to give us a new birth as children of God. (see John 3:5)

Jesus gives us His body and blood
so he will be with us always.

Emmanuel: God is with us in the Lord’s Supper. Here again, Jesus combines the Word of His promise with the physical elements of bread and wine to bring forgiveness, life, and salvation to those who believe in Him. Regarding the bread and wine, Jesus said, “This is my body. … This is my blood
… for the forgiveness of sins.” (see Matthew 26:26-29) Jesus is the God who is with us and who comes to us in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. This again is not just a symbol or representative of God’s presence. Jesus is truly present in His Body and Blood in the bread and wine of the Sacrament. This is for the benefit of believers – who receive what is graciously given, but because Jesus is bodily present in the Lord’s Supper it is also a curse for unbelievers who receive Christ’s body and blood, but do not believe it and so reject Jesus. This is why St. Paul taught, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)

Jesus was there for Zacchaeus
to absolve him of his sins.

Emmanuel: God is with us through Holy Absolution. When Christians confess their sins to the pastor and the pastor forgives them we trust that forgiveness is the same as if Jesus Himself were standing there proclaiming our forgiveness. Jesus told His Apostles, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you. … Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” (John 20:21-23) Once again, Jesus is there working through His Word (and the pastors who properly speak it) to assure us that He has paid the price for our sins and rescued us from punishment.

Emmanuel: God is with us in times of persecution. The Christian life isn’t always wine and roses. Jesus told His disciples that they should expect persecution. He said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.” (John 15:18-20)

Jesus is with us in death
to give us everlasting life.

Those who say that the Christian should expect only success and prosperity are false teachers and heretics. Yet because Jesus is with us in so many ways the faithful Christians are given strength to remain in Christ even in the midst of the worst persecution. There are Christian martyrs suffering and dying for the faith even today in several parts of the world. In some ways it is easy to remain faithful in the face of persecution. Though no one wants to suffer and die, why would the Christian abandon their God who is with them and suffered and died for them, and turn to a false god who calls for his followers to become cruel murderers or terrorized slaves? This is how the terrorists will ultimately be defeated. It won’t happen through military strength and tactics – that’s their game. They eventually will see that they are following a false god and will repent and turn to Christ and be saved. Pray for the martyrs this Christmas and throughout the coming generation, that Jesus will strengthen them and protect them, and will work through their witness to convert their enemies that they may know Christ and His salvation and be saved.

Christ be with you this Christmas, and always!