Monday, March 31, 2014

Session One: God

Session One:   God

God Is!

“In the beginning, God…. (Genesis 1:1).  Christianity begins with the affirmation that God exists.  Like the Bible itself, we don’t attempt to “prove” this in any absolute or mathematical sense, we rather affirm that it is a great reality! 

We affirm that God is the Creator (Genesis 1:1, Hebrews 11:3), He is eternal (Psalm 90:2), He is not evolving (Malachi 3:6), He is all-powerful (Genesis 17:1), all – knowing (Psalm 139:1-4), all – present (Jeremiah 23:24), morally perfect (Leviticus 19:2), just (Deuteronomy 32:4) faithful/dependable (2 Timothy 2:13), compassionate (Psalm 145:9-10) and filled with unconditional love (1 John 4:8).   And that’s a mouth full!

While most people believe in some supernatural reality, Christianity affirms that God is much more than a “first cause” (deism) or “life force” (pantheism) or some “unknowable it” (monism).  We affirm that God is PERSONAL – with attributes very much like a person!  “God is love!” (1 John 1:8), “God was sorry” (Genesis 6:6), “God hears us” (1 John 5:14), “God hates such things” (Proverbs 6:16), “God cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7) and so on – personal characteristics!   These are more than pious anthropomorphisms; they affirm that our God relates to us, in personal, intimate ways! 

Our conviction that God loves and saves and forgives and answers prayer and so much more all flow from this conviction that God really is and He really cares and is really involved in our world and lives.  He is not some abstract Reality or philosophical concept or cosmic Force that may be used or manipulated or evaded or simply must be accepted; He is not “out there” somewhere – aloof and unaware.  No!  He is the “Immanuel” – the God WITH us and FOR us!

In Christianity, everything is from the perspective of this God.  Christianity is a very God-centered religion!  Eastern and native religions are man-centered, all about man and man’s quest to find God or appease God or become God or manipulate God.  Christianity reverses that; Christianity is about God becoming man in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Beyond this basic, fundamental assumption that God IS, Christianity is built on four “legs” – four fundamental affirmations.  Again, we don’t attempt to “prove” these to be true but Christians affirm them as great realities on which Christianity is built.  Knowing these “four legs” and keeping them WELL in mind (constantly!) goes a long, long way in recognizing theologies as true or false. 

God loves!

”God is love!”  (1 John 4:8).  Indeed a “god” who is very real and very powerful – but neither moral or loving – is a “god” to FEAR!   But Christians affirm that God is, above all, both morally good and loving!  

“God loves” is the concept for which Christianity is best known.   For Muslims, the central ‘hub’ is “God is one.”  For Judaism, it’s “God is holy.”  While we agree with both of those things, our “hub” is that God is LOVE – everything flows from that affirmation and conviction!   God LOVES!   Me!  It’s the root, the foundation, the key point of Christianity.

The entire New Testament is supersaturated with this concept!  The word “love” appears 51 times in just the single book of First John - which is only 5 chapters long!  

“Agape” is the Greek word for it.  The word means unconditional love, love that is poured out irrespective of merit or the worthiness of the recipient.  Not unlike how parents are passionately in love with their yet unborn child – who has not yet done ANYTHING to deserve all the love and sacrifice Mom and Dad are lavishing on him/her.  Agape is unconditional, unmerited.  It flows from the lover (God) to the object of that love (us) irrespective of what we deserve. 

The two great Christian festivals both stress this unmerited, unconditional LOVE of God.  At Christmas, people ignored Christ, the innkeeper relegated Him to a barn, King Herald even tried to kill Him!   AND YET – God’s LOVE prevailed.  On that cold, silent night, in that barn, amid the straw and animals, the Savior was born for you and me.    At Easter, the people rejected Him, deserted Him and betrayed Him.  The religious leaders (who clearly knew better) subjected him to a mock trial so absurd even they must have been embarrassed, they twisted the arm of the Roman governor who clearly wanted nothing to do with this, they tortured Him and horribly crucified Him.  AND YET – God’s LOVE prevailed!  Jesus died for you and me.   The Bible puts it this way, “Not because we love Him but because He loves us.” (1 John 4:10). 

This fundamental embrace of God’s unconditional love is at the very root of Christianity.

God acts!

God doesn’t just sit up there, somewhere, passive and aloof!   No!  Ours is a God of ACTION.   Christianity tells the story of what GOD has done, which perhaps is why most of the Bible is history – HIS story.  Christian teachings are about what GOD has done and what GOD does; the arrow is from God to us!   The emphasis is NOT on what we do for God but on what God does for us.

Think of all the Christian holidays, every one is about what God has done for us!  Christmas, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – every single one of them is about God loving us, God seeking us, God doing for us, God giving to us, God blessing us, God saving us. God acts!  For us!  He is the active giver, we are the passive receivers.

The universal symbol of the Christian religion is not a heart but the Cross, because Christianity is not about emotion but action.   God’s love was not just a warm, fuzzy feeling in God’s heart like the “gods” of other religions that smile down upon us but don’t do a thing for us.  No, God’s love is an active, doing, giving, blessing reality because if love doesn’t have a “so that” when so what? 

Christians tend to define God with VERBS (loves, cares, forgives….) rather than with nouns; we are much more focused on what God does than on metaphysical discussions of what He is. 

Appreciating the significance of this is critical to understanding historic, orthodox Christian theology.  If we forget this and lump Christianity together with all the false religions, if we assume that it’s what we do for God, how we please and bless Him, then much of Christianity will make no sense.

God relates!

Christianity is about the loving, living, trusting, personal RELATIONSHIP that exists between God and us.  The very word “Christian” means “to be in Christ.” 

So much of the Bible stresses this very point.  “You shall be my people and I shall be your God” (Leviticus 26:12), “We are the children of God” (1 John 3:1), “Because we are His children, God sent the spirit of His Son into our hearts crying ‘Abba, Father’ (“Abba” means Daddy).” (Galatians 4:5).  “We abide in God and He in us” (1 John 4:13), “I am with you always!” (Matthew 28:20),

It is no coincidence that God uses the term “Father” to speak of Himself and uses the term “children” to refer to us – both strong RELATIONAL terms.  It’s no coincidence that Jesus begins His model prayer with the words, “Our Father.”  And it’s no surprise that when Christians speak of God, they almost always do so with relational terms and allusions.  So does God! 

This is the basis of Christian morality.  “We love because God first loved us!” (1 John 4:9).  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love as I first loved you.” (John 13:34)  Note the order!  We do not love so that God will love us, no!  We love because God first loved us!   As God’s love for us lead to action, so our love for Him and others leads to action.  God first gives to us, then we share with those around us.   OUR morality and love flow from GOD’S morality and love – out of the relationship we have with Him.

This is also the basis for Christian comfort.   There’s the story of a hospital that was having problems in the nursery.  The walls were painted plaster, the ceiling the same, and the floors hard tile.  As a result, every noise in the nursery echoed and reverberated so that the crying of one baby would wake up all the others and soon there was a constant din of wailing!   One nurse suggested that they play music to calm them, but this only added to the noise.  Then another nurse had a radical idea.  She taped the sound of her heart beating.  That’s all, just the sound of her heart beating.  It worked.  Christians understand that!  We are comforted as we hear the sound of God’s heart beating for us.  We may not know the future, we may not escape the storm, but we are in His loving arms, close to His heart, and we can hear it beating – for us. 

In addition to these 4 affirmations, the “four legs” of Christianity, in reference to God, we also proclaim that….

God is Triune!

One of the most ecumenical teachings of Christianity is the Trinity (it’s the only doctrine celebrated in the Church Year – on Trinity Sunday).  But it wasn’t easy!  

The Bible, from Genesis – Revelation, is a profoundly MONOTHEISTIC (“one God”) book, proclaiming this truth loudly over and over (1 Corinthians 8:4, Isaiah 44:6, Deuteronomy 6:4).  BUT, also from Genesis through Revelation, there is also a certain multiple-ness about God (the teaching that God is one but also multiple is found in the very first verse of the Bible!).  How do we embrace this – affirming both and denying neither?

Some verses seem to stress the “three ness” of God (1 Peter 1:3, 1 Corinthians 13:14, Matthew 3:16-17, Galatians 4:5, John 5:23, John 20:28, John 19:30, Philippians 2:10-11, Acts 5:3-4, Psalm 139:7-8), often showing the “persons” very independently.  These – taken alone and out of context – could suggest that there are 3 “gods” yet Scripture says there is ONE God. 

Just to make things even more difficult, Scripture says that all 3 “persons” are equal in existence – none before or after the other (all eternal – no beginning or end), and they are equal in glory (none greater than the other).  There is, however, a difference in authority, a certain “chain of command” within the Trinity.

This was one of the “issues” early Christians really struggled with, and the debate threatened to tear Christianity apart.  Some stressed the “three-ness” saying there are 3 Gods but they are so united in love, will and purpose that we may speak of them as if one (one in purpose rather than essence).  Others said that there is one God but He has 3 roles or jobs or functions (rather like masks – thus the Greek term “persona” – mask - from which we still have the term “person” when speaking of God) but it’s the same God behind each one.  Ultimately, these “explanations” and extremes were rejected (heresies still heard!).   God IS one but God IS Father/Son/Holy Spirit.  We cannot stress one over the other but must keep them in balance.  We should affirm what God says – and leave it there!  God is a TRI-UNITY, 3 in unity; He is TRI-UNE, Three-yet-One or Three-in-One.  The ‘physics’ of this is simply left entirely to mystery – but the result is that we affirm that God IS one but there is some very real “three-ness” about Him that is equally true.  The Nicene Creed (ca. 325 AD) was written in part to affirm this Trinitarian understanding.  All this is “spelled out” in its final form as part of the Athanasian Creed – one of the three ancient “Ecumenical Creeds” embraced by Lutherans, Catholics, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Protestant denominations.

Footnotes, questions, discussions

·         How do all disciplines have assumptions, things assumed true without ever proving them?  Why is that ultimately needed?  

·         In the middle ages, MUCH energy was given to trying to logically “prove” these “four legs.”  It was an important part of “Scholasticism.”  While most today would conclude they “failed” to prove such, Christians tend to believe they are nonetheless reasonable.  Indeed, some have argued that a “god” where these 4 things do NOT apply is not “God” at all – “too small to be God” (J.B. Phillips).  Do you agree? 

·         The Trinity was one of the early great debates (another centered in a similar issue – the two natures of Christ, more on that in session three).  The resolution of the debate (largely formed in the 4th century) is often seen as a great model to us!   Christians – all, together – thought, prayed, studied, prayed, talked, prayed, debated, prayed, studied, prayed – for centuries!  Until out of this, an ecumenical consensus formed – a consensus eventually embraced and affirmed by the Council of Nicea in 325 (one of 7 Ecumenical Councils, the last in the 8th century).  The KEY to this consensus was a simple affirmation of what Scripture says – WITHOUT “over-thinking” it,  without “rationalizing” things, without imposing a lot of human logic, insisting that it all “make sense” to us.  Indeed, early Christians STRONGLY embraced that Christian theology as “mystery.”  Scripture tells us to be “stewards of the MYSTERIES of God” not use our puny, sinful, human “logic” to make God make sense to US.  Just accept what God says in His Scripture – affirm that!  Lutherans speak of letting GOD “have the last word” – even if that leaves us with “mystery” – with unanswered questions.  If the result doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense to US, if the result leaves us with more questions than answers – so be it.  Throughout Christianity, there has always been a great temptation to impose our logic, reason and philosophy on God.  Luther, “We tend to think we’re smarter than God.”  Lutherans are not OPPOSED to using human logic or philosophy (especially to help us UNDERSTAND a doctrine – rather than to make the doctrine) but we do so with much caution.  Do you see a fundamental wisdom in the consensus of the Trinity?  In the embrace of “mystery” rather than the imposition of our logic, philosophies and theories?

Session Two: Authority and Accountability

How do we know?

“Epistemology” is the issue of how we know.  While we can know something about God from Creation and introspection and even reason – something of the “image of God” remains after the Fall – it’s not much!  Fortunately, God has kept in touch!   In ancient times, He would literally speak to leaders (such as Abraham or Moses) or through Prophets (such as Isaiah or Micah) but He also has spoken to us in enduring ways via writing – the first example of Scripture being the Ten Commandments written by God on two tablets of stone, which immediately became the Rule (“straight edge”) or Canon (measuring stick) for morality.  This is how we know about God – right from God, whom we affirm as the Author of Scripture.

We believe that that written word is God’s very word to us (1 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Corinthians 2:13, 2 Peter 1:21).  God used various penmen as His instruments (some known, most not) – and seemed to have often used their personalities and such in the process, but the final result, we believe, is His.  We thus believe that Scripture is reliable and dependable in its purpose, embracing it as indeed “infallible” (John 17:17, John 10:35).  We use it to learn about God, His promises and counsel, and to provide a “rule” for Christian teachings and claims.  And we believe that God’s Scripture is “authoritative” because of its Author, whom we believe is God.

What is the Bible?

The word literally means “books” or “library” and it is the collection of all the books regarded as God’s holy written word – God’s Scriptures.  It contains 66 books in two main sections:  39 in the Old Testament (all before Christ, written roughly 1400-400 BC) and 27 in the New Testament (all after Christ, written roughly 45 – 90 AD). 

Of course, these books were written over 1500 years and by dozens of different authors!  Their collection together, their recognition as God’s Scriptures, was a process we believe was guided by God. 

Orthodox and Catholics have a larger Bible.  The additional books are controversial Old Testament books around which there has never been a historic and ecumenical consensus.  These extra controversial books are known as Deuterocanonical or the Apocrypha.  It’s mostly a irrelevant issue since virtually nothing in them has ever been of any consequence or importance – and thus little attention has been given to them and whether they are or are not God’s Scripture.  The Oriental Orthodox Churches have more of them than the Eastern Orthodox which, in turn, has more than the Roman Catholic Church.   Luther included the Catholic’s “set” in his German translation (and Lutheran tomes continued this practice well into the 20th Century), but generally Lutherans (like Protestants in general) don’t regard them equally with the 66 books that have the universal and historic embrace of all Christians.  Technically, we neither affirm OR reject them (we have no formal stance on them at all – leaving them in the “disputed” category).  Lutherans don’t read from them in the Sunday Readings and rarely quote them in sermons.  Since none of the “sets” of them contains anything of consequence, it’s never  been much of an issue.

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament in koine Greek.  Scholars and pastors study them in those originals, but since most Christians are not trained in those ancient languages, translations (versions) are needed.   These became popular after the printing press (15th Century) made books far more accessible.  The King James was an English ecumenical translation from the 17th Century that served well for centuries, but in the 20th Century, many other translations became available.  Most are reliable enough for general reading.  The English Standard Version and the New International Version are the most commonly used translations today among Lutheran congregations in the USA, but there is no “official” or even especially recommended translation.  “The Lutheran Study Bible” (Concordia Publishing House) contains the ESV and very excellent notes and resources.

Using the Bible

The Bible (which is a collection or type of library of Scripture) contains two sections, the Old and New Testament (before and after Jesus).  The Old Testament contains 39 books, the New Testament 27 books.  Each book has a title and has been divided into chapters and verses to make it easier to study (all supplied by us).  A verse might be written as Mark 4:38.  Mark is the book (the second book of the New Testament), 4 is the chapter and 38 is the verse. 

Roughly speaking, the Old Testament is organized as:  History (Genesis – Esther), Wisdom Sayings (Job – Song of Songs), Major Prophets (Isaiah – Daniel) and the Minor Prophets (Hosea – Malachi).  

The New Testament is organized as:  Life and Teachings of Jesus (Matthew – John, the first three called “synoptic”), History (Acts), Letters of Paul (Romans – Philemon, going from longer to shorter), General Letters (Hebrews – Revelation). 

Sola Scriptura

The words mean “Scripture Alone” and it affirms that God’s written word is the final “Rule” (straight edge) or “Canon” (measuring stick) for the evaluation of Christian teachings (especially disputed doctrines).  It affirms that God’s words are above our words, that our teachings are accountable to God’s teachings (and not the other way around). The practice goes all the way back to the first Scriptures as Moses directed the people’s attention to the supreme Authority of the Ten Commandments of God.  Jesus used the Rule of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) some 50 times during His ministry, as just recorded in the Bible (no doubt there where MANY examples not so recorded), 

Lutherans reject that a teacher or denomination may self-claim to be the sole authority or to functionally be above God and His written word.  We reject that any teacher among us is unaccountable and “above” examination.  This idea that the teacher or institution is unaccountable and that it itself is the final Authority is known as “Sola Eccelsia” and is embraced by Catholics and Mormons and to a lesser extent by Orthodox Christians.  This is one of the key differences between Lutheranism and Catholicism.


Of course, God’s written words usually need to be interpreted and applied!  There may be honest disagreements about that.  Lutherans would STRESS that the actual words of the text must be supreme and the norm, and usually that resolves much.  We’d also stress the context of the verse – both immediate (the chapter, for example) and greater (the whole of Scripture).  This concept of embracing context is sometimes referred to as “Scripture interpreting Scripture” (“clarifying” might be a more accurate verb there).  But again, valid differences of interpretation might be possible.

“Tradition” (big “T”) refers to the historic, ecumenical, universal consensus of God’s people, especially in terms of interpretation of Scripture.  In nearly all the important areas, Christians struggled with these verses and issues – intensely and prayerfully looking at the Scriptures, debating and discussing and praying and studying, often for centuries – and eventually, a consensus developed that was textual and ecumenical.  Lutherans take this very seriously.  Lutherans see no reason to “reinvent the wheel” in every generation as if no one has thought or studied about this things before (the Bible is 3400-2000 years old!).  We respectfully embrace the “wisdom of the past.”  We call this Tradition.  

However, Lutherans consider such “Tradition” as under Scripture and not equal to or above it.  Catholics consider the Tradition of The Catholic Church as at least equal in Authority and normative function with God’s Scripture, but Lutherans place ecumenical consensus just a notch below that.  This consensus or Tradition – however wise – is OUR “stuff” and not equal to God’s Scripture anymore than we are equal to God.  Our   interpretation and application is not equal with the text itself, we believe.  Lutherans tend to embrace Tradition more than other Protestants but less than Catholics.  Lutherans study the Church Fathers and Christian history, we look to the true Ecumenical Councils and we regard highly the greats of our past – we just don’t consider them as equal to or above God and God’s writings. 

Luther is credited with saying, “We must be bold where God’s Scripture is bold and silent where God’s Scripture is silent.”  The second is just as important as the first.  Lutherans approach Scripture with firm embrace but with awe and humility.  We are comfortable with tensions and balances and admitting that we just don’t have all the answers.  Lutherans call this “mystery” and note that we are called to be “stewards of the mysteries of God.”  While Catholics are more eager to apply Tradition and human philosophy, and whereas some other Protestants are more eager to apply human logic or reason, Lutherans are more comfortable with just embracing the mystery and leaving it as Scripture leaves it.   “Letting God have the last word.” 

Footnotes and discussions….

1.    Do you see a similarity between the Rule of Scripture (Sola Scriptura) and the Rule of Law in civil societies?  How do both embrace accountability for all and embrace a knowable, unalterable, written Rule/Canon? 

2.    Whereas it seems that in a sense God “wrote” morality in the hearts of humanity, eventually He (literally) wrote down a summery of such in the Ten Commandments.  Why do you think He did?  What is the value of writing it down (Scripture)? 

3.    In the embrace of Tradition, Lutherans are stressing a sense of community and a rejection of individualism (whether of an individual person or denomination).  This is OUR collective, historic conclusion.  There’s always been a tendency in Christianity for self to think that God only leads or speaks to ME (whether that “ME” be a person or denomination) and to appoint self as the sole authoritative interpreter.  Tradition (in the Lutheran sense) rejects that and embraces that God speaks to US, God gave His Scriptures to US collectively. 

4.    Lutherans have a strong sense of “mystery.”  People can often “over-think” things or impose human logic or philosophy or speculations upon God as if our “job” is to make God’s teachings “logical” or make them “make sense” to people.  While Luther saw value in philosophy, reason, etc. – he was also suspicious of such, especially the over application of such.  “We are stewards of the mysteries of God,” we stress.  We don’t have all the answers, nor do we think we need to.  

Session Three: Jesus

The God/Man

Scripture teaches that Jesus is unique in many ways!   This includes His very nature – for he is not JUST a human being (what we obviously can see) but He is also God! 

He is a real “flesh and blood” human being, the son of Mary, a Hebrew descendent of Abraham, a Jew of the line of Judah and David (Galatians 4:4, John 19:34, 1 Timothy 2:5).  But He is also the “incarnate” Second Person of the Trinity (John 20:28, 1 John 5:20).  At His conception, the Second Person “became flesh” (incarnate) in the person of Jesus – so that He is altogether BOTH God and Man (the Two Natures of Christ).  Fully both.

These natures are united and inseparable but not blended into one.  The “interplay” of these two natures (called “The Communication of Attributes”) is difficult stuff beyond the scope of our study here – but it’s enough to say that sometimes we see Jesus primarily in one nature or the other, but we must never forget He was/is always and fully both since His conception. And what applies to His divine nature also applies to His human nature.   This can be pretty “heavy” stuff – we’ll need to wait for Christianity 201 (or maybe 301!) for that.

Embracing that Jesus is BOTH fully man and fully God of course embraces that two realities can be fully true at the same time.  Obviously, there’s a mystery there!  Obviously, where God is present, the rules of physics will not suffice.  There is always a human temptation to make things logical, to “connect the dots,” to explain things in terms of human stuff like science and philosophy.  It’s a temptation to resist…

Without sin

Because Jesus is ALSO God and God is without sin, one of the “functions” of the communication of attributes is that Jesus is completely without sin – He IS morally perfect and DOES fulfill the Law – He is the only human example of that.  This sinlessness of Jesus is an important teaching of the New Testament (Hebrews 4:15, John 8:46, John  8:29, John 17:19, John 18:38, Matthew 27:19, Luke 23:41, Matthew 27:4, 2 Corinthians 5:21, etc.).   We’ll later see why this is so important.

By His two natures, Jesus has all the attributes of God and all the attributes of man – except for sin. 

The Messiah/Savior!

But the important thing is that He is our Savior!  We’ll talk more about that in the next Chapter, but Christianity is centered in the affirmation that Jesus IS the Savior!

“You will give him the name Jesus for he will save the people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  “Jesus is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).  “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved” (Acts 4:12).  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son Jesus, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but has everlasting life” (John 3:16).  “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes unto the Father except by me.”  It’s understandable that we spend FAR less time and effort on metaphysical stuff about Jesus and far more time celebrating what He did and does!  He is the Savior!

A Word about Mary…

As is often the case, Lutherans hold a “middle ground” here. 

The Bible actually says very little about the mother of Jesus, but we are told that all generations will call her “blessed” and we read about Her profound example of faith and obedience.   And, of course, Jesus loved Mary – and so it’s appropriate for us to do the same. For these reasons, Lutherans hold Mary in high esteem – more so than is common in Protestantism.  Lutherans historically have referred to Her as “Our Lady” and “the Mother of God” (remembering that Jesus is also God). 

On the other hand, there are a number of dogmas in the Roman Catholic Church that we do not embrace as such.  These include the Perpetual Virginity of Mary (that Mary remained a virgin all her life, proclaimed in 681 AD), the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that she was conceived without original sin, 1870), the Assumption of Mary (that she was bodily received into heaven upon her death, 1950), the Mediatrix of All Graces (that she also is the mediator between God and man, 1904), and a few others.   We find no biblical confirmation for any of these ideas, the tradition is late and biblically unfounded, and indeed some of them seem to Lutherans biblically problematic and perhaps largely irrelevant.  Mind you, we don’t declare these ideas to be wrong, but we don’t affirm them as dogmas either.

It should be noted that Luther (and most of the early Lutheran “fathers”) embraced many of these teachings we now associate with Catholicism (a point Catholics often bring up).  Luther was Catholic for about half his life and he lived in a world VERY focused on Mary – and his spirituality reveals this.  Especially early on, Luther reveals a very passionate Marian devotion (that lessened with time).  But they were embraced as “pious opinions” not dogmas.  Pious opinions are views about which Scripture is silent (neither affirming or denying) but have strong historic and ecumenical embrace; these we are permitted but not required to embrace.  Like Luther, some Lutherans today embrace some of these things – but as pious opinion. 

Footnotes, questions and discussions…

1.    The Two Natures of Christ was another of the huge early debates (the Trinity being the other biggie).  This was a similar issue:  sometimes Jesus is presented as fully human, other times as fully God.  WHICH is true was a hot debate!  Some argued that He is fully God but only LOOKED like a human being (rather like a ghost), others that he was fully human but simply represented God on earth (a kind of divine Apostle).  Early Christians prayed, studied Scripture, debated and prayed.  Lots of philosophical theories were presented.  In the end, the embrace was simply that BOTH are equally true, and physics or philosophy just can’t explain it.  Scripture is to be taken at face value – even if we don’t understand it.  He is BOTH – inseparately.   His two natures BOTH exist (not some blending of the two, as if put into a mixer). We accept this – and just stop where Scripture does, leaving our questions as our questions. This was finally affirmed at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD (although this consensus was much older than that).  What wisdom do you see in this approach to this question?

2.    This session is about JESUS – the centerpiece of Christianity, and yet it’s probably the shortest session in our study!  The reason is simple:  Christianity is not so focused on the essence or nature of Jesus as on the work of Jesus – what Jesus did!  For us!  We’ll study that – at length – in the next chapter!

3.    Some Protestants and Catholics like to argue about Mary.  Lutherans find ourselves a bit on the sidelines.  We see Mary as a Christian of amazing faith and obedience – to be esteemed, and obviously she’s important as the Mother of Our Lord!!  On the other hand, we simply don’t want to dogmatically proclaim things not known to be true (and perhaps rather irrelevant anyway) or to suggest anything that detracts from Jesus as THE Savior.  We share some of the Catholic admiration and spirituality, but share the Protestant concern and emphasis on this point.  But we don’t like the fight  over Mary!  In what ways to you think Mary could help and/or harm our faith and discipleship?

Session Four: Salvation

God’s holy written word contains two primary “messages” – we call these Law and Gospel. 
·         Law tells us the wisdom and requirements of God – what we must do. 
·         The Gospel tells us the love and heart of God – what He did/does for us.  

The law serves to condemn us and show us that we “fall short” and can’t “fix” ourselves – we need God’s love, forgiveness and salvation.  The Gospel refreshes us and shows us that God DOES love, forgive and save us in Jesus Christ – and promises all His blessings; not because we are worthy but because we are loved!  We CANNOT come to Him so He came to us in the person and work of Jesus.   (Note that the Law has another purpose too: to show us how to live, for even if we CANNOT do so to God’s standard, nonetheless, our efforts make for a better life for others, ourselves and society). 

The Law

“You must be morally perfect just as your Father in heaven is morally perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
“You must be holy for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26). 
“For all people sin and fall short of God’s requirements” (Romans 3:23).
“There is no one that does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12).  
“By our efforts will no one be justified” (Galatians 2:16). 
“If salvation were through our keeping of the law then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).

The Law reveals that we are fallen sinners, and that our own efforts – no matter how valiant – are not going to make us “right” with God.  Indeed, even if we could suddenly be absolutely PERFECT – we’d just be doing our duty and it wouldn’t make up for all the times past when we were not. 

Sin is anything contrary to the will of God.   We speak of “sins of commission” or doing what we should not (Galatians 5:19-21) and “sins of omission” or NOT doing what we should (Romans 3:12).  Sins may be by our thoughts (Matthew 5:28), words (Matthew 12:36) or by deeds  - again done or left undone.  They may be intentional (Romans 1:32) or unintentional (Numbers 15:22-24) – it’s all still sin.  While some make a distinction (mortal and venial, for example) the bottom line is the same: it’s sin.  We are separated from God and we can’t “fix” it! 

We also speak of “original sin.”  This biblical concept (Psalm 51:5, John 3:6, Romans 5:12, Ephesians 4:22, Genesis 8:21) is that our “fallen” nature includes a “natural” inclination to self-centeredness and sin; there is now in our nature as certain “twistedness” or “spiritual illness” that is ours by virtual of our fallen nature.  It’s “inherited” only in the sense that it is a part of our nature from conception on.  If a man shoots his neighbor (an “actual” or “actualized” sin), that doesn’t just spring from nothing.  There is a whole chain of “stuff” that led up to that act – going back to an ability to hate in his heart.  In a sense, the “disease” is the original sin and the “symptom” is the actualization of that – rather like a cold is the disease and the cough is the symptom. 

The Gospel!

“God is love!” (1 John 1:8),
“God so loved the world that He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but has everlasting life!” (John 3:16),
“God shows His love for us in that while we were enemies, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
 “God saved us not because of deeds done by us but in virtue of His own mercy, that we might be saved by His grace” (Titus 3:5),
“For our sake God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
 “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:23). 
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing but it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
“Everyone that believes in Christ receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43)
“Sirs, what must we do to be saved?”  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”  Acts 16:30-31

Our salvation is the result of GOD’S heart, will and work – not our own.  Nor is this a mixture of our works and His works so that Jesus is PARTLY the Savior and we are PARTLY the Savior, no, Jesus IS the Savior.  We are to keep our hearts and faith focused squarely and only on Jesus who ALONE is THE Savior. 

The “Vicarious Atonement”   This is often expressed in this manner: 
·         God requires that we be perfect (Matthew 5:48, etc.).  We are not.  So Christ was perfect for us (1 Peter 2:22, Romans 5:19). 
·         God requires that our sins be punished with death (Romans 6:23) so Christ took that punishment for us (2 Corinthians 5:21, Galatians 3:13, Isaiah 53:4-12).  
Christ, thus, “takes our place” in life and in death, fulfilling the law in our place.

A word about faith…

“For by grace you have been saved through faith in Christ, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” Ephesians 2:8
“We are justified by faith” Romans 5:1
“God justifies he who has faith in Jesus Christ. Romans 3:26

The word “faith” means to rely, to trust.  In its use here, it means to rely on Christ for Salvation (and beyond). It is the means by which we embrace the promise and the work of Christ.  

Faith is not just (or even primarily) a cognitive or mental thing, it means to place our trust, our life in another – to rely.   When we ride in an airplane, we may not understand exactly how the plane flies – but we can board the plane and literally entrust our very lives to it.  We may submit to surgery and to a surgeon whom we don’t even know (and who doesn’t know us) and have no idea what will happen – literally entrusting our very life to him/her.  Trust is a key factor in lives (to not trust is to be paranoid).  For a Christian, we trust our soul and much of our life to God.   In salvation, we trust in His works rather than in our own, we look to HIS perfect life rather than our sinful one, to His death rather than the one we deserve.   We are placing our lives in His loving hands.  

Faith is not our doing, it is the ‘gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8) 

Even in the 101 class, you must learn some Latin!

Sola Gratia  (Grace Alone).  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8, see also Romans 6:23, Titus 3:5, etc.).   This places emphasis that our salvation flows from God’s heart – not ours.  Grace is God’s unmerited, unconditional love. It is HIS blessing, HIS gift.  Grace means “getting what we don’t deserve.”  It is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense” 

Solus Christus  (Christ Alone).  “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).  “There is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved” (Acts 4:12).  “No one comes to the Father except by Me” (John 14:6).  Christ IS our Savior and our salvation. It’s CHRIST’s perfect live, CHRIST’s perfect sacrifice, CHRIST’s triumphant resurrection!   It’s CHRIST’S love, CHRIST’S works, CHRIST’S righteousness that saves.  Christ is the object of our faith.  It is not how much we believe but in Whom we believe; our focus is on the quality of Christ’s work rather than on the quality of our faith; He is our certainty. 

Sola Fide (Faith Alone).  “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved!” (Acts 16:30-31.  Also see John 3:16, Acts 10:43, etc.).  This proclaims that the way His grace and salvation is embraced/apprehended is by faith.  Faith means to trust or rely upon.  It means to have active confidence or reliance especially upon something “unseen” or “unproven.”   It too is a gift of God. 

For God so loved the world (Sola Gratia) that He gave His only begotten Son (Solus Christus) that whosoever believes in Him (Sola Fide) will not perish but has everlasting life! 

Lutherans are strongly “monergists.”  This means we credit all of justification to God; it’s HIS doing, HIS gift:  Jesus is THE Savior (which means we are not – not at all, not a bit; not now, not ever).  This at times is expressed as another Latin phrase: Soli Deo Gloria, to GOD alone be the glory!

A word about our works…

Salvation is not the result of OUR works but rather JESUS’ works.  He is the Savior; we are not. Because JESUS is the Savior, it is His works that bring about our salvation – not ours (or else, we’d be the Savior!). 

On the other hand, Scripture is clear that faith is never alone (James 2:17, Galatians 5:25, John 13:34, Philippians 2:13, Philippians 3:12-14).  OUR works do not save us, but they result from our being saved – they are the result of our justification and not the cause of it.  We love not so that God will love us, rather we love because God first loved us (Galatians 5:25, John 13:34, Hebrews 11:6).  Faith is busy with love.  OUR works are not the cause of salvation but the result of salvation, and as such, are to accompany our lives as Christians. 

Salvation is “DONE” not “DO”

Messing this up undermines everything!   When Jesus is no longer the Savior, we’ve stepped outside of Christianity.  When we are made our own Savior (in whole or in part), the result is not only a conflict with Scripture and the central affirmation of Christianity, but it results in one of two things: A “terror of the conscience” (as we realize we’re not the “savior” of self we need to be) or we become little self-righteous, condemning souls (because we think we are what we need to be).  It results in the beauty and comfort of the Gospel being lost and our relationship to God undermined.

In some circles, OUR works are added to the requirements of John 3:16 so that it reads, “For God so loved the world so that those who do “X, Y and Z” will not perish but have everlasting life.”  The key factor then is not Christ but our performance of “X, Y and Z” – not His work but our work, WE become the Savior, not Christ.  And we must worry if we’ve done “X, Y and Z” well enough (remember His call to perfection?), if we’ve done enough, if we’ve done well enough, if we’ve been sufficient.   IF we answer “NO” the result is a “terror of the conscience” so that we never know if we are forgiven or saved or heaven-bound or not.  IF we answer “YES” the result is often a prideful, self-righteous, condemning modern-day Pharisee.  We must not mix our works with Christ’s works, the cause of salvation with the fruit of salvation.  The result is the “peace that passes all understanding” and love that isn’t selfish and self-serving but truly of God. 

Jesus is the Savior!  We are saved by His grace and mercy, by His life and death and resurrection!  Our faith, our rest, our certainty are in Christ!  Our peace, our confidence, our certainty are in Christ!  

Session Five: Discipleship

“You need to get the horse before the cart!”   It’s true in many things, including theology and the Christian life.  We need to get things in the right order, the right sequence – or things will get seriously messed up!    There’s a story about a boy who wanted to play Little League baseball, in spite of the reality that he actually had never played the game or had even SEEN a baseball game.  His father, who was a bit of a baseball star in high school, trained the boy in the basics:  throwing, hitting, fielding – but never engaged the boy in an actual game.   They showed up for tryouts, and sure enough, the boy was first up.  The pitcher threw his best fastball, but the boy swung hard and connected powerfully – the ball practically went into orbit!  And the boy ran – FAST – right to third base!   He tagged that base, ran onto second and tagged that, then on to first, and finally to home – all just beating the ball!  But instead of cheers the boy heard laughter!  The coach went up to him and said, “You’ll do fine, son.  You just got to remember to go to first base first!”  Order matters.

In the last session, we learned about the glorious Gospel of salvation!  We learned that Jesus is THE Savior – we aren’t, even in part.  Salvation and the spiritual life we now have are a result of what JESUS did/does; life is always a gift – the gift of God.   We don’t cause ourselves to come to spiritual life anymore than we caused ourselves to come to physical life.  It’s a gift.  We are but receivers. 

But our birthday (our coming to physical life) is not the end, it’s the beginning!  The beginning of a life-long journey, hopefully one of growth, hopefully becoming more mature, more responsible, more ethical, more giving/serving, more “other centered,” more loving.  It’s a process, a life-long process to which God and society call us.  In the same way, our salvation, our coming to spiritual life, is not the end, it’s the beginning!  The beginning of a life-long journey, hopefully one of growth, becoming more Christ-like, more spiritually mature, more ethical and loving.   We call this process “sanctification” or “Christian discipleship.”   It is a process in response to our salvation.   It’s not HOW we are saved, it’s HOW we live as ones who are saved.   When we were born, we were fully human. Nothing is going to change that. But at that moment, we begin a lifelong, progressive journey of ACTING human, as living as the people our parents call us to be and society needs us to be.  When we fail (and we do daily!), we don’t cease to be human – we just fail to live as humans should. 

It’s important to get the horse before the cart or all kinds of crazy (and often heretical!) ideas result.  If we confuse justification with sanctification, we can end up with the “terror of the conscience” or “prideful Phariseeism” (addressed in the last session) or still worse, we end up rendering Jesus irrelevant and wandering out of Christianity, either declaring ourselves not needing salvation or declaring ourselves as the savior of self.  No!  God loves us – THEN we live and reflect this love.  God adopts us as His people – THEN we live as His people.   It’s important to not confuse Gospel and Law here.  BOTH apply!   God loves us – unconditionally.  God saves us – fully.   Gospel!   But God also calls us to great things – and such is not a mild suggestion, it’s a divine mandate!  Law!   NEITHER should not be “watered down” or mixed together, they are both fully true.

Let’s carefully look at the Scriptures….

“A new commandment I give to you:  Love, just as I first loved you.” John 13:34
“By this will all the world know that you are my disciples: if you have love.” John 13:35
“Do not let sin reign in you, to make you obey it.” Romans 6:12
“Since we live by the Spirit, let us now walk by the Spirit.”  Galatians 5:25
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and therefore obey His commandments.” 1 John 5:2
“God is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”  Philippians 2:13
(Paul writes) “Not that I am perfect, but one thing I do, I forget what lies behind and I strain forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14

The “marks” of a Christian are his love and his morality, his heart and life.  Neither are “perfect” or complete this side of heaven (remember: sanctification is a process!), but we “press on” to make it more and more so.  It’s “growing up.” 

Our love and life are a “reflection” of Christ.  Our life is not a flawed effort to get God to love us, it’s a joyous sharing of the love He first poured into our lives.  We love and forgive and care and more – BECAUSE we have received all that, in full measure, right from God Himself.  We don’t give so that we might receive, we receive so that we might give.  

This is known as “sanctification” and it refers to the whole of our lives in response to our justification.  It is our sharing, our applying of what is ours – however ‘faint’ our sharing might be.  Justification (salvation) is sudden and complete – done on the Cross of Calvary, but Sanctification (our life response) is gradual and incomplete, a process never perfect this side of heaven.  Justification is God’s work (Jesus is the Savior, we’re not) but sanctification is a “cooperative” process – God empowers it but we need to actually do it. 

Also see the section on “morality” in Session One and on “good works” in Session Four.  

Questions and reflections….

  • There’s an old adage:  “We can’t give what we don’t have.”   How does that apply to our study here?
  • Jesus gave The Great Commandment,  “Love!  Even as I first have loved you, so you must love.”  Do you see a significance in Jesus’ foundation for the command?  How is becoming more “Christ-like” also becoming more loving? 
  • OUR love to others is never a perfect reflection of God’s love to us.  Why not? 
  • How have you seen salvation and sanctification confused?  Have you seen this lead to one of the 4 things mentioned (“terror of the conscience” “Little Pharisees” “I don’t need salvation” “I’m the Savior of me”)?

Session Six: Baptism


Lutherans are “sacramental” as are Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican Christians.   Understanding such requires a solid understanding of the concepts of God as love and God as the active one, that God blesses us (see Session One).

“Sacrament” is a theological term loosely referring to any “means of grace.”  A “means of grace” is whatever GOD uses to bring faith and power into our lives a means to bless.  When the Gospel message of the Bible is preached or read or sung or told – it becomes a “tool” of God, something God can use to GIVE us the “gift of faith” and to guide and empower and bless our lives.  Yes, our reading or listening or singing involves some “work” on our part but that’s not the point – GOD is using this like a carpenter using a tool to create something beautiful.  While MANY things can be “means of grace” in this loose sense, historically Christians have especially referenced Word and Sacraments as the “Means of Grace.”  They are “tools in the hands of the Carpenter” for the granting and strengthening of faith and life. 

In and of themselves, they are rather powerless and benign.  Like a hammer just lying there.  But place that hammer in the hands of a skilled carpenter and GREAT things happen!  In the same way, the Bible may seem only like words, Baptism only like water, the Eucharist only like bread and wine.  Ah, but they are in the hands of the Carpenter!  Who wishes to BLESS us!

In the past 500 years or so, a small minority of Christians have replaced this concept of God blessing us with and opposite concept: “Ordinances” (often referring to the same things).  The focus is placed on man to some extent, where man is the active and critical factor, the emphasis becomes less on God’s unmerited grace and mercy and more on OUR “obedience” and God’s reward of that, thus the redefinition as “Ordinances” (not something God does for us in love but something we do for God in obedience in hopes of reward); OUR jumping through hoops in hopes of pleasing God. Some Christians “talk past” each other on these points because of this different understanding of God and His grace/mercy. 

“Sacrament” is a theological term; we define it as especially something instituted by Christ that utilizes some means in order to offer or seal His gift of faith and His power in our lives.  Some define the word a bit differently.  Lutherans don’t dogmatically number them, but historically (not dogmatically) we’ve spoken especially of two:  Baptism and Holy Communion.   These are gifts of God, means of grace, tools in the hands of God, means He uses to bless us.


The practice of Baptism actually began among the Jews long before Jesus, and there were several forms of it common in Jesus’ day.  In a sense, Jesus adopts these, combines them, and fulfills them – making them more than something that points to a promise but actually grants that promise. 

The word baptizo simply means “to wash.”  It includes a concept of forgiveness and initiation.  Baptism may be thought of as a Rite of Adoption, an embrace into the “Family of God” as well as a washing away of sins.  Baptism can be thought of as “God’s way of adopting us.”

Jesus instituted the Sacrament in Matthew 28:19, “Go and make disciples of all people – Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…” 


There are many blessings associated with Baptism.  Among them:

“Be baptized every one of you…so that your sins are forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38-39
“Be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” Acts 22:16
“This water symbolizes Baptism that now saves you.”  1 Peter 3:21
“All of you who are baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” Galatians  3:27
“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.”  1 Corinthians 12:13

Of course, the water is not effectual in and of itself (it is just water!), but it is powerful and creative in the hands of God!   Just as a hammer does nothing in and of itself – but rather the skilled man using it, so water does nothing in and of itself – but rather in the loving, giving, merciful and giving hand of God.   Luther stressed that the “power” of Baptism comes from the word and promise of God – not the H20 and certainly not in the pastor administering it.  It’s a “tool in the hands of the Carpenter.” 

What About Infant Baptism?

The Bible is silent on the matter of age. 

Some note the very INCLUSIVE language associated with the Sacrament (Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38-39, Acts 16:15, etc.) and the promise that children can believe (Matthew 18:6, Mark 10:13-15, etc.).  They view the Sacrament as an ACT OF GOD, a blessing, and note that such doesn’t require our worthiness but only His mercy. Today, about 75% of Christians welcome children (it was 100% before the late 16th Century). 

Some parents reject this gift for their children because they want the child “to decide for himself.”  However, parents often make responsible decisions for their children. Parents seldom do this in other areas of life; do they ask their child if the child wants to get his cavity filled at the dentist or wants to go to school on Monday morning?   Some parents also misunderstand that Baptism is not joining a denomination or even a church, it is being embraced into the Family of God.  He or she will still need to ‘decide’ what church or denomination they desire to join (this is done at Confirmation – often in the teen years).  We should not disobey God and withhold this blessing from our children any more than national citizenship or any other blessing.

Sprinkling, Dipping or Immersing? 

Scripture is silent on this point. 

It’s likely that Jesus was immersed (of course, His was a Jewish/Old Testament rite) but there’s no indication that is the only acceptable or permissible means.  We know that all forms of applying water was practiced and permitted as early as 110 AD.   The great majority of Christians simply see this as a “non-issue.” It’s not the amount of water that is critical but rather Who is “using” this and for what?  For most, the issue of “how much” matters no more with Baptism than with Communion.  However, there have been some since the late 16th Century coming out of the Anabaptist tradition that consider immersion to be required.  Lutherans disagree.  We see nothing wrong with full immersion, we just don’t see it as mandated; since Scripture is silent on this, so are we.

Is Baptism Necessity?

We argue that Baptism IS necessary in the sense that Christ commands it and it is a “means of grace” we should not reject.  It is not essential in the sense that if we don’t receive this Sacrament we CANNOT have faith in Christ or be saved.  We note in Luke 23:43 that Jesus promises the thief on the cross that he is saved but he was never baptized, but we also note the rebuke of the Pharisees that rejected baptism.  We should not neglect or reject this Gift of God, but on the other hand, one CAN come to faith in spite of not receiving it since God is not “bound” to it.

A Word About Godparents and Sponsors…

Originally, these “witnessed” the Baptism and promised to raise the child in the Lord should the child loose his parents (and usually all other close relatives).  Today, this need rarely arises and the issue of raising children is now a matter of legal documents.  So, today they continue to serve as witnesses but especially serve as encouragers – helping, supporting and encouraging the parents in the spiritual upbringing and education of the child.  They are completely optional and need not be married or Lutherans, but they should be ACTIVE, strong Christians and should understand that they are making an 18 year long commitment to assist and support you in the Christian upbringing of the child. 

Discussions, Questions and Footnotes….

1.  Back in Session One, we studied the “foundations” of Christianity and noted that much assumes and depends on them.   One of those foundations is that GOD is the active one, we aren’t!  How does that apply in the topic of Baptism?   IF we assume that WE are the active one, that what matters is what WE do for GOD in obedience, then is infant Baptism going to be problematic (especially if the little one sleeps through the whole thing, as they often do)?  How do you see the “Adult vs. Infant Baptism” not a conflict in understanding Baptism but a variance in how we understand our relationship to God?

2.  Literal wars have been fought over how many Sacraments there are!   One English queen rather quickly lost her head over this one!   Lutherans have “opted out” of this fight.  The term never appears in Scripture or the earliest Church Fathers, and there is no numeration of such in Scripture.  While the CONCEPT of God using means (“tools”) to bring about His grace and will in our hearts and lives is very biblical, “Sacrament” is OUR term and WE give it OUR definition (not all denominations define the term the same way).  We are strongly “Sacramental” because we stress God as the active one and fully embrace His means of grace.  Also because we place great emphasis on the promises, blessings and importance of Baptism and Communion.  But we’ve simply stayed out of the historical “fight” over HOW MANY there are.  Although we leave this officially alone, many Lutherans are pretty comfortable with the Eastern Orthodox and Anglican stress on all kinds of things being “sacramental” (means of grace, tools in the hands of the Carpenter), what is or is not specifically a Sacrament largely depends on how you define the word.  Our focus should be on God’s blessings, not our numbers.

3.  The origins of “Godparents” rests in two things:  the practical need to have someone to raise the child IN THE LORD should the parents (and relatives) all die (not at all unusual in earlier times!) AND in the role of sponsors.  Sponsors also play a role in new employees, in AA and many “recovery” programs, etc.  How can sponsors be a blessing?   What not-so-good reasons do people have in sometimes choosing Godparents?  How can Godparents be helpful?