Monday, December 21, 2015

A Treasure of 10,000 Blessings

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. (Mt 1:21)

For this reason too the angel came bringing His name from Heaven, hereby again intimating that this is a wondrous birth: it being God Himself who sends the name from above by the angel to Joseph.  For neither was this without an object, but a treasure of ten thousand blessings.  Therefore the angel also interprets it, and suggests good hopes, in this way again leading him to belief.  For to these things we are wont to be more inclined, and therefore are also fonder of believing them.

So having established his faith by all, by the past things, by the future, by the present, by the honor given to himself, he brings in the prophet also in good time, to give his suffrage in support of all these.  But before introducing him, he proclaims beforehand the good things which were to befall the world through Him.  And what are these?  Sins removed and done away.  “For He shall save His people from their sins.”

Here again the thing is signified to be beyond all expectation.  For not from visible wars, neither from barbarians, but what was far greater than these, from sins, he declares the glad tidings of deliverance: a work which had never been possible to any one before.

But why, one may ask, did he say, “His people,” and not add the Gentiles also?  That he might not startle the hearer yet a while.  For to him that listens with understanding he darkly signified the Gentiles too.  For “His people” are not the Jews only, but also all that draw nigh and receive the knowledge that is from Him.

And mark how he hath by the way discovered to us also His dignity, by calling the Jewish nation “His people.”  For this is the word of one implying nothing else, but that He who is born is God’s child, and that the King of those on high is the subject of his discourse.  As neither does forgiving sins belong to any other power, but only to that single essence.

John Chrysostom, Homilies on St. Matthew, IV.13

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Come, Lord Jesus

I was listening to podcasts yesterday afternoon, and this one just hit me.   I give the text in toto.  The audio can be found here.

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

Maybe you’re sitting in your parents’ or grandparents’ house, which has been in the family for many years, and you’ve just finished a holiday meal. You’re looking around at the walls, maybe at the brick in the walls, and you say, “If only these walls could talk. What would they say? What have they seen?”

Maybe you’re just inside the walls of Jerusalem, getting ready for the feast, watching a Man ride into the city on a donkey (of all things!), and you look up at the walls of the city and you think, “What if these walls could talk? What would they say? What have they seen?” And in the middle of the shouts and singing, the palms and garments on the road, you hear the leaders of Israel tell the Man, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples.” And—you can barely hear it over the shouts of “Blessed is the King coming in the Name of Yahweh”—He says, “If these were silenced, the rocks would cry out.” But He’s not looking at the pebbles on the ground; He’s gesturing to the great stones of the walls of the city and the temple. The stones would cry out, not in praise of God—although certainly the whole creation does that. They would cry out in judgment and reproach against those who refused to recognize their God when He came to them.

Just as the prophet Habakkuk said. Speaking of Babylon, whom God had used to bring judgment and discipline upon His people in 586 BC, Habakkuk said that the walls of Babylon would be torn down, and when they were, a stone from the wall would cry out and a beam from the woodwork would answer (2:11). This is what happens when a city is built on the foundation of bloodshed, violence, and idolatry. And in the last verse of chapter 2, Habakkuk cries out: “Yahweh is in His holy temple; let all the earth keep reverent silence before Him.” Not the silence of nothingness; but the silencing of apathy, ignorance, and a refusal to believe in the God who had come upon and among them. So while the crowds cried out at the entrance of Yahweh into His chosen city, Jesus warned Israel’s leaders against their silence. And when Jesus entered the temple, there was not reverent silence; everything went on as it had before, in the hustle and bustle of the business that had to be done. Everything went on just as if nothing had happened. Yahweh was in His holy temple, and the earth did not keep reverent silence. So it is that the stones of Jerusalem would bear witness against such silenced praise: twice in the Gospel of Luke Jesus says that there would not be one stone left upon another. The stones would cry out against them, because they did not know the time of their visitation. They did not recognize their God when He came to them in the Temple of Jesus’ flesh, bones, and blood.

What if these walls could talk? What would they say? What have they seen? When they come down—and eventually they will—will they cry out in judgment and reproach against us because we did not recognize the time of our visitation? That our God has come near to us in flesh of Jesus, by word and sacrament?

This is my 37th Advent on this earth, and I hope and pray that it is my last. That’s what we pray for, after all, when we pray “Come, Lord Jesus.” We are praying that this Advent would be our last Advent. Many of you have seen many more Advents than I have. But the Church has seen them all. The Church has seen thousands of Advents, thousands of years, and she has been watching, waiting, and praying throughout all of them: Come quickly, Lord Jesus. And this Church, which encompasses all those who have entrusted themselves to the coming Lord, all the baptized believers of all times and all places, the whole company of heaven, along with angels and archangels—she waits patiently for the fulfillment of the promise. But she knows that we, her individual members, are sometimes swayed, sometimes moved, sometimes carried away from the promise and the prayer. My vocation as your pastor forces me to look again and again at these Advent Scriptures, to try and hear them again and hear them new here and now. But that contains its own danger of hearing them so often that I grow numb to the Word itself. My preparation can cause me to miss the actual days of visitation, to miss the God who is present in the body of His Holy Temple, Jesus. And your vocation does the same, in its own way: that your preparation with family and the hustle and bustle of business as usual might turn your head and eyes away from the God who visits us. We are always tempted to apathy and complacency; as the year turns around again, we are tempted to think that things will go on as they always have. But the Lord is not slow in keeping His promises, as some understand slowness. But He is patient, not wanting any to perish. His patience means salvation. But that does not mean the Day will not come. So together we need to be reminded of the promise and the prayer: Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Behold, I am coming soon. To gather in reverent silence as Yahweh visits His people once again, week after week, Advent after Advent, year after year to speak His forgiveness, who comes to us humbly in bread and wine (of all things!). This is the time of our visitation, until the Day when He visits us once and for all. Until then, the walls of the holy Church will ring and echo, stones and wood crying out and answering the same song, made new every day. The song of the angels at His birth, Glory to God in the highest, and peace to those on whom His favor rests. The song of the crowds in Jerusalem, Blessed is the one who comes in the Name of Yahweh. When He entered this world, the heavenly host sang its praise; when He was about to return to His Father, men sang back their note of praise. And so it goes, whether this is our last Advent, or there are a thousand more: Blessed is the coming King, who visits us with His salvation.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/28/15

Timothy Winterstein is a pastor in East Wanatchee, WA and is co-host with Lewis Polzin of the podcast Boars in the Vineyard.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Luther’s Sacristy Prayer

Regardless of your office and vocation in our Lord’s church, this prayer penned by Martin Luther is yours.
Lord God, You have appointed me as a Bishop and Pastor in Your Church, but you see how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task.  If I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago.  Therefore, I call upon You: I wish to devote my mouth and my heart to you; I shall teach the people.  I myself will learn and ponder diligently upon Your Word.  Use me as Your instrument—but do not forsake me, for if ever I should be on my own, I would easily wreck it all.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Who Received the Promise?

What a precious thing to be the recipient of some divine communication of the coming Savior.  Over and again God revealed His intention of supplying the One who would take away the sin of the world.  Who was blessed to receive that news before the day of His arrival?

Simeon had been serving faithfully in his Levitical duties when “it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Lk 2:26).  We might wonder how long before Mary and Joseph presented the purification offering that Simeon received this news. What a blessed longing until it came to fruition, and when Jesus was presented, he could give praise.
Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
    that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.  (Lk 2:29-32)
Not many days prior to the presentation, others received news while going about their vocations.  This particular night was no different than any other save for an incredible series of events when Jesus was born.
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a 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.”  (Lk 2:10-11)
Shepherds, watching their flocks by night, were privy to one of the most remarkable moments of the redemption story: God put on human flesh.  The great and wise men of Israel did not receive the news, but those who assumably were faithful and longing for His appearing.

Mary and Joseph
A betrothed couple received news that a baby was on the way.  This was most remarkable since the bride-to-be had never lain with a man.  Yet this young lady received the burden and joy of giving birth to the incarnate God.
And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” … And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  (Lk 1:28, 30-33)
Such news was inconceivable.  When Joseph learned of Mary’s assumed adultery, he decided to put her away, yet in a loving way so as not to bring shame on her head.  He also received news of his own part in God’s good plan.
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  (Mt 1:20-21)
Old Covenant Prophets
These announcements are wonderful to consider, yet we have more times that our Lord revealed His intention to His covenant people.  Prophets like Isaiah and Micah received the promises to share with Israel.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lᴏʀᴅ of hosts will do this.  (Is 9:6-7)

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lᴏʀᴅ,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lᴏʀᴅ his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.  (Mic 5:2-5a)
Even King David was given prophetic insight concerning his own future King.
The Lᴏʀᴅ says to my Lord:
    “Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

The Lᴏʀᴅ sends forth from Zion
    your mighty scepter.
    Rule in the midst of your enemies!
Your people will offer themselves freely
    on the day of your power,
    in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
    the dew of your youth will be yours.
The Lᴏʀᴅ has sworn
    and will not change his mind,
“You are a priest forever
    after the order of Melchizedek.”  (Ps 110:1-4)
As we continue to move back there are other, fewer glimpses of the coming Promised One until we reach the terminus which launches the momentum of redemption.  There was a day which introduced the salvific work to rescue humanity from its sinful condition and reconcile God with man.  Who had the honor of first receiving the promise of redemption?
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
    and you shall bruise his heel.  (Ge 3:15)
Satan, that ancient Serpent, was the first to hear the promise.  That seems counter-intuitive, the one who instigated the fall of mankind would get the most glorious news, but the promised needed to deal with Satan and his work by destroying them forever, as well as reversing the effects brought about through his cunning.  The Law given to Adam—do not eat of the tree—was broken, and because the Serpent was complicit, he is guaranteed to suffer the full wrath of justice as the bestowal of Gospel is delivered.

O, the greatness of His grace that I should be the recipient of such a lavish promise.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Evangelicals Adrift by Matthew E. Ferris – Book Review

Matthew Ferris has provided an examination of Evangelicals who have left their traditions in order to join with Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, which leads to the subtitle Supplanting Scripture with Sacramentalism.  The author begins by identifying the eclectic nature of Evangelicalism and recognizing the identity crisis and concomitant questions brought about as a result of the variation in belief systems:
  • •  Where do we come from?
  • •  How do we relate to the historical church?
  • •  Why are there so many denominations?
  • •  How do we know we have true doctrine?
  • •  Are we interpreting the Scriptures correctly?
  • •  What’s with sacraments?  What are they about?
These questions are important, and Ferris attempts to answer them through the remainder of the book by showing why the move to RCC or EO practices is a move embracing the ecclesiastical hierarchy and magisterium rather than the truth of Sola Scripture.  The author labels the underlying problem “Sacramentalism”—the system of multiple sacraments as means to earn righteousness.  As good as this identification is, he goes completely awry by misusing the historical data and Scripture texts to make his arguments.  The following are some of the errors the author makes in his attempts.

Church hierarchy – Ferris rightly lays out New Testament leadership structure as being flat with multiple overseers/elders in each church which morphed into what became highly structured systems.  Within this, he attempts to demonstrate the gradual progression to a monarchical episcopate but makes missteps along the way.  For instance, he identifies Ignatius of Antioch as the first to argue unswerving obedience to the bishop (i.e., overseer, επισκοπος) in his epistles to the Ephesians and Magnesians.  While the quotes are accurate, Ferris noted Ignatius’ use of color, flamboyant language for which he was noted in his correspondence, but never considers that Ignatius’ understanding was likely similar to Cyprian of Carthage.  Indeed, had the church in Antioch been entirely out of line in this regard, there likely would have been corrections made in correspondence or later councils.  None exists.  Nor does Ferris consider that the office of overseer or bishop became more focused out of need.  The man with the best biblical knowledge and moral character was recognized and installed to that office in order to deal with both persecution and heresy.  There was no deliberate promotion of hierarchy, but a recognition that there were few copies of Scripture and those who could study and teach them were placed in authority.  Only later did the system evolve into a monolithic, irrepressible behemoth.

Church authority – RCC and EO doctrine both teach that salvation comes through their respective ecclesiastical bodies.  Ferris demonstrates that this came about more through the use of hierarchical pressure and political maneuvering than through biblical instruction.  True, the mixture of church and state from the time of Constantine forward allowed political pressure to be exerted, this was not always the case.  In order to mark these paths to absolute authority, the author looks at the doctrine that the church is necessary for salvation using Cyprian of Carthage from his statement: “He cannot have God as his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.”  Evangelicals bristle at this notion, pointing to Peter’s confession that there is no salvation except in Jesus (Acts 4:12).  While this is certainly true, Ferris mishandles his cause here by failing to mention that the Church was the only organization that had the Scriptures.  In this regard, Cyprian was correct to say the Church was necessary for salvation.  Sadly, this was misconstrued or twisted for gain to centralize power into the established hierarchy.

Ferris also addresses the Ecumenical Councils by noting that though there were doctrinal issues to address, the councils themselves were run more for political positioning.  While politics played a part in convening these councils and, to some part, in forcing anathemas against heterodoxy and heresy, they also went overboard in addressing them, anathematizing where it may have been unnecessary.  From a modern view, Origen and Nestorius may have avoided this condemnation if a more temperate approach had been used, but this ignores unknown forces in play that may have required the extreme actions.

Authority of Scripture – Whether or not admitted, tradition and canon law has effectively been the authority over Scripture for several centuries in the RCC/EO realm.  A combination of the seven Ecumenical Councils and a purported oral tradition comprise the basis for this shift that occurred in the medieval period.  RCC/EO dogma depends on the extra-canonical traditions to continue much (most?) of doctrine and practice.  Are there traditions that should be placed on par with Scripture or be used to help?  Ferris contends that Scripture should always be given preëminence, and this is correct.  However a caveat must be given, since the early church recognized a tradition in doctrine (1 Cor. 11:2) to safeguard against heresy.  Both Irenaeus and Tertullian refer to the “Rule of Faith” (Latin, Regula Fidei) which was a basic outline of doctrine.  Faithful teaching of Scripture defines the rule, and the rule helped against new doctrine.  If the new doctrine was in accord with this rule, it passed muster; if not, it failed.  Tradition, therefore, is a vital as it follows Paul’s admonition to Timothy to instill God’s Word in “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).  So proper use of tradition—systematic theology, creeds, catechisms, etc.—is good if it remains within the parameters of Scripture itself.  Ferris discards these notions in favor of going to the source, recognizing but largely bypassing the findings and practices of the early church.

Certainty – How certain are we that our doctrine is correct?  Do we know that the Rule of Faith is correct?  Vincent of Lérins attempted to set down his canon (i.e., rules) by which the Church is to be aligned.  This was a more detailed description of systematic theology than that given above by earlier fathers.  Ferris takes issue with Vincent’s statement:
Now in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.  That is truly and properly 'Catholic,' as is shown by the very force and meaning of the word, which comprehends everything almost universally.  We shall hold to this rule if we follow universality [i.e. ecumenicity], antiquity, and consent.  We shall follow universality if we acknowledge that one Faith to be true which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is clear that our ancestors and fathers proclaimed; consent, if in antiquity itself we keep following the definitions and opinions of all, or certainly nearly all, bishops and doctors alike.
Notice especially the phrase “we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.”  Since there were heresies and heterodoxies prior to and commingling with the church of  that day, how can Vincent posit that these had such universal adherence?  Ferris fails to account for rhetorical language and persuasion.  Vincent is not ignorant of false doctrine but writes in a way to bolster the Church catholic.  Is certainty built on tradition?  No, but as stated previously, it cannot be jettisoned because by the tradition of doctrine passed through faithful men, we are properly instructed.

Role of Hermeneutics –Ferris rightly identifies twos main schools of interpretation in the early church: allegorical view of Alexandria and literal view of Antioch.  The allegorical view is examined and found wanting while the literal is promoted as preferred.  While I largely agree, the generalities are faulty.  Ferris purports that the allegorical hermeneutic is incorrect because it allowed a fanciful interpretation of Scripture (see Clement, Origen, and Augustine) and because it allowed easy rise to Sacramentalism.  There could have been a correlation with the latter, however it appears to be more like post hoc, ergo propter hoc than sound reasoning.  Promoting the school of Antioch over Alexandria ignores both the importance of Alexandrian hermeneutics in properly defining the doctrine of God and the Christological heresies that arose in Antioch.  Neither school of interpretation was entire correct or incorrect, but needed each other working together to arrive at the truth.

Sacraments – Ferris reviews Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession in familiar credobaptist, Zwinglian Protestant fashion, however in doing so he inadvertently maligns the Reformation churches begun through the efforts of Luther, Calvin, and Knox.

In his discussion of baptism, Ferris goes through the biblical texts to build his case for credobaptism in a way that misapplies the text.  Some instances are noteworthy.
  1. He purports that infant baptism could not be possible because infants do not display faith.  This is a questionable argument since the degree of faith is not mentioned as a factor in salvation.
  2. If babies gain salvation at baptism, then Paul's instruction “Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy” (1 Cor 7:14) is nonsensical since baptism saves them. This simply ignores the context of the verse which says that the husband is unbelieving and therefore would not allow such a thing to happen in that culture.
  3. Lastly, in categorically stating that baptism is only symbolic, Ferris appeals to Romans 6:3-4, which plainly states that baptism results in newness of life, not the other way around.  If he wishes to make a strong argument, a better source text needs to be used.
In his discussion of the Eucharist, I find the lack of biblical texts to be telling.  Instead of dealing with doctrine, Ferris uses this section to opine on the Jewish customs that entered the early church after the temple’s destruction.  While the influx of some elements can be documented, there is good documentation that the early church was carrying over elements of synagogue and temple worship from the beginning.  The overuse and misuse of these forms seems to be more the issue.  In much the same way, confession is not addressed according to Scripture, but reviewed in relation to RCC/EO misuse.  This is unfortunate since proper confession of sin is a vital part of the Christian life.

As mentioned in the beginning, Matthew Ferris presents a good understanding both the issues and weaknesses of Evangelicalism and Sacramentalism.  The problem lies in his misconstruing the latter by inadvertently lumping those with a high view of Sacraments into the RCC/EO camp.  Three main confessional, reformation groups—Lutheran, Reformed, and Presbyterian—hold to a high view both of Scripture and Sacraments.  Though not deliberately lumping these into the Sacramentalist side of the journal, readers can be left with the notion that these three denominations fall into Evangelicalism or Sacramentalism at their heart, which they do not.  I realize that this was not the intent of the book, but the author did a disservice by it.  This book does have good information—I agree completely with his two chapters covering Veneration of Mary/Saints and Schism/Unity—but the poor argumentation leaves much to be desired.  Perhaps a second edition could fix the weaknesses and make this a first rate selection.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free of charge.  I was not required to write a positive review, and the opinions are my own.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”