Thursday, March 31, 2016

Worship in the Name of the Father, and of the Truth, and of the Spirit

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about what worship "in spirit and truth" means in John 4:23:

Q:  What does Jesus mean in John 4:23 when he says that “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”?

This is a statement of Jesus that has been called into service for a variety of agendas over the course of church history.  One of the most popular has been to suggest that worship should be heartfelt (thus “spirit”) and not rote memorization or following a set order.  Others have included the idea that a person might have a direct experience of God in worship as opposed to contact with God that comes through channels such as the Word and the Sacraments. 

These understandings of Jesus words seem only to come in English-speaking contexts, though, and are not typically found elsewhere, and they fail to recognize the circumstances under which Jesus makes the statement.  The Samaritan woman to whom Jesus is having the conversation has just brought up the question over whether one ought to worship God in the Jerusalem temple as the Jews do, or on various mountains as the Samaritans do. 

Jesus’ response is intended to redirect her question away from consideration of where is the right place to worship God under Old Testament law, and instead, toward the question of the identity of the God being worshipped.  In both alternatives that the woman presents, the proponents of that form of worship have both departed from the Truth and rejected the Spirit by proposing their own worship rather than that given by God.  For the Samaritans, it was mixing the name of the true God with ways of worship borrowed from idols.  For the religious leaders in Jerusalem, it was the belief that they could please God with their own good deeds and observance of the Ceremonial Law. 

Jesus answer uses an answer that reveals to her who the True God is because He names the Trinity by saying that the true worshippers will worship “The Father,” of whom Jesus is the Son.  They will do so “in Spirit,” that is, by the faith given by the Holy Spirit.  And they will do so in “Truth,” which Jesus reveals to be Himself throughout the Gospel of John, especially when He says later in John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  

So in Jesus’ words, we have the Father, the Truth, and the Spirit.  It is reminiscent of the traditional ending of the prayers of the Church, “Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”  True worshippers are those who acknowledge the Triune God, according to Jesus, and now that He has arrived, He tells the Samaritan woman that both Jerusalem and the mountaintops of Samaria are now irrelevant, because they both seek to worship a God who will someday come to save them, but that God is now standing before her, and will soon go forward to the cross and grave, from which he will rise and make both the temple and the Old Testament law obsolete. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Extraordinarily Unreliable

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about why we see such a difference between the extraordinary events and revelations in Bible times and the seemingly ordinary events of present day life in the Church:

Q:  Why is it that there are so many dreams, visions, healings, and other miraculous revelations or interventions recorded in the Bible, but these do not seem to be a prominent part of the life of the Church today?

Before sin entered the world, Genesis describes Adam and Eve as having close, direct interactions with their Creator in their garden home.  Even upon their sin, God still speaks directly to them about the consequences of that sin, but more importantly about the promise of a savior who would come from among their descendants. 

From then on, reports of God’s direct interaction with humanity become less frequent and less numerous.  Seen in the lives of men like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, these interactions occur to particular people for a particular purpose, namely that of preserving and protecting the family line that will eventually give birth to Jesus. 

Later in the Old Testament, these direct revelations become confined only to those called to the office of Prophet, and once Jesus Himself lives, dies, rises, and ascends into heaven, those holding the office of Apostle continue to receive inspiration by the Holy Spirit and proclaim the Divine Word in their preaching and their writings which now make up our New Testament. 

Many people, upon reading of the extraordinary events they see in the lives of the Biblical personalities, wonder why it is that they have not experienced such things if they also trust in Jesus.  What is often overlooked, however, is that these direct encounters with God are particular in nature, seen manifested in those holding the office of Prophet or Apostle, or in close association with those holding that office.  Additionally, these events which are described in Scripture are never connected with a promise that the general population of Christians will experience the same, whether then or thereafter. 

Even Jesus’ own description of the Holy Spirit’s work among the Apostles in John 14-16 does not include the promise that He will reveal anything new, but rather is described as reminding them of what Jesus has taught them and guiding them in their proclamation of the same.

Now, we do see occasional claims in the present day that similar events to those in the Bible have occurred.  The epistle of 1 John does give some general standards by which one might rule out that an extraordinary event was divine in origin, and this is given because of the possibility that spiritual evils could produce miraculous acts or extraordinary experiences as counterfeits to draw people away from Jesus. 

This is the danger for relying on these extraordinary things in the present day—that we cannot verify if they are genuine divine acts or evil counterfeits sent to distract us from Jesus.  In fact, many would warn that it is possible that the evil one or his angels might grant a person great prosperity or miraculous rescue and allow them to give God credit for it only to pull the rug out from under them so that they curse God when these things fail. 

Whether God chooses to intervene directly in the present day or not, there is a source for reliable hope which is far greater.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes the miraculous and extraordinary things we might seek as the imperfect or partial revelation of God, while He points to the Scriptures and the hope of the Resurrection on the Last Day as the perfect and complete. 

The eyewitness reports of the death and resurrection of Jesus are secure and trustworthy, along with the rest of Scripture which flows from them.  When God deals with us through this revelation, as well as that Word made visible in the Sacraments in His Church, we can know it is Christ Himself and no imposter who comes to us, because these are firmly attached to His own promises, for which there is no counterfeit.  And when He returns on the last day to judge the living and the dead, He will reveal Himself to all people and heal all that is wrong forever. 

Lead us not into Temptation; but Lead Jesus Instead

For last week's newspapers, I answered a question about the Holy Spirit's role in Jesus' wilderness temptation:

Q:  If it is Satan who is responsible for the temptations we face, and not God, then why do Matthew and Luke say that the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted after His Baptism?

These details do seem to be in conflict with each other on the surface, but if we wanted to be very detailed in looking at the sentence, we could note that the Spirit simply leads Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan does the actual tempting. 

But that answer is not necessarily adequate, because we still see the Holy Spirit serving to lead Jesus into temptation when James, the brother of Jesus, writes in his epistle, “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” This seems to place the temptation far too close to the Holy Spirit’s work of leading Jesus for the comfort of most. 

Since the words tempt and temptation do not refer only to sin, but also to other various types of tests, trials, and tragedies, some have used the same kinds of explanations here that are often used by pastors when people face hard times in life.  Among these are explanations like that God does not tempt people, but allows people to be tempted or tested to achieve a greater good.  While explanations like this may be comforting and may be true, they still seem less than satisfying in this instance. 

When reading the details that Matthew and Luke give about Jesus’ temptation, it is interesting that there are repeated Old Testament connections made by the events of Jesus temptation which point us in the right direction about what is happening there: 

The best example might be that the temptation lasts 40 days.  The number 40 shows up dozens of times in Old Testament history and in the life of Jesus.  The most relevant here would be that Moses was on Mount Sinai 40 days when He received the Law in God’s Ten Commandments, and the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness 40 years on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, giving in to many temptations along the way. 

Jesus, on the other hand, spends His 40 days in the wilderness perfectly resisting temptation, and while the Law revealed by Moses brought only the bad news that we have sinned and fall short of God’s demands, Jesus spent His 40 day temptation, and all of His earthly life, fulfilling God’s Law in our place.  His perfect record under temptation is a reversal of our failure to resist sin. 

In another case, an Old Testament Sacrifice on the Day of Atonement involved sacrificing two goats.  One was slaughtered as a Sacrifice for sin, while a family would confess their sins while laying their hands on the goat’s head, after which they would lead it into the wilderness and abandon it never to be seen again, pointing forward to this temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. 

These among many others, point Israel, and us with them, to the work of Jesus as the Savior who lives and dies in our place.  Because of this office as Messiah and Savior, Jesus is different from us in His relation to God.  Just as He suffers the cross in our place to exchange our well-deserved punishment for His perfect rewards, it is necessary that He be tempted, and so the Spirit leads Him to it in a way that might not be true for us. 

Jesus temptation was done to fulfill the righteousness God demands and to achieve God’s will which is that people would rely on Him for forgiveness and be give eternal life through Him.  Likewise for us, even when we do face tests and trials in life, we trust that they occur for the greater purpose of pointing us to God’s salvation and an eternal, resurrected life in which there will be neither temptation nor suffering of any kind.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ash Wednesday

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the ceremonies of Ash Wednesday and their meaning:

Q:  What is Ash Wednesday and what is the meaning of applying ashes to people’s foreheads on that day?  What reasons to churches have behind their decision to use ashes or not, and how does this custom fit with Jesus warnings in Matthew 6 about showing off one’s repentance, prayer, and good deeds? 

Ash Wednesday is the name that has come to indicate the first day of Lent.  It occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday, and emphasizes the themes of sin, mortality, and repentance that carry forward throughout the season of Lent, which is a period of contemplation and often fasting that prepares for the celebration of Easter. 

The source of the name for Ash Wednesday comes from one of the customs associated with it—the application of ashes to those who attend that day’s services.  In Old Testament times, covering oneself with ashes was used as a sign of mourning or sorrow for sin.  In keeping with that Old Testament tradition, churches began centuries ago to use this as a way of marking the beginning of Lent, as it fits closely with its repentant character. 

A common tradition relating to the making of the ashes is to make them by burning the prior year’s palms from the Palm Sunday procession, and the ashes are usually mixed with a small amount of olive oil in order to achieve the right consistency for application.  Holy water may also added, such as in Roman and Anglican traditions of Christianity.  The traditional words which accompany the application of the ashes are “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” again emphasizing the themes of sin and mortality by echoing the words recorded in Genesis as being spoken by God to Adam and Eve after their fall into sin. 

In addition to the Roman and Anglican tradition, the use of Ashes is also fairly common among Lutherans and Methodists, as well as some portion of most denominations which observe the season of Lent.  A trend in recent years has been for even representatives of some traditions which have not typically observed Lent or other elements of the broader liturgical year to restore the traditions of Ash Wednesday as part of a renewed interest in the ceremonial heritage of the ancient Church.  It is rare, if not outright forbidden, in traditions which devalue ancient ceremony or reject it as merely human tradition. 

Some Christians do avoid the use of ashes at all because they perceive that it violates Jesus’ warnings about self-righteous displays in Matthew 6, while others, particularly among Roman Catholics, choose to wear their ashes for the remainder of the day after their application as a public testimony of faith in Jesus.  Others may receive the ashes, but remove them soon after in response to Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 6.  Some even see the receiving and immediate removal of the ashes as an excellent illustration that we are born sinful and deserve God’s punishment because we engage in actions which disobey God’s law, but that the sin has been washed away in Baptism, allowing all who trust in Jesus to forgive their sin to stand before God at the judgment in His righteousness and purity rather than their own death-deserving sin. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Jesus' Birthday?

For last week's newspapers, I answered a question about the date of Jesus' birth and its significance for salvation:  

Q:  How did the Church figure out if Jesus was born on December 25?  Do we celebrate Christmas because Jesus saved us by being born? 

Many people do not realize that the date of Christmas on December 25 was never intended to be understood as a claim to be the literally precise date of Jesus’ birth.  A handful of ancient Church Fathers believed and defended the possibility that it might be His actual birth date, but the date of December 25 is more significant for its role in illustrating through the rhythm of the Church’s year the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

This begins with the common acknowledgment that the day on which Jesus was crucified was March 25.  Because it was not customary for the Jewish people to record birth dates at the time of Jesus, it was a popular belief that the date of a person’s death coincided with the date of their conception.  By this reasoning, Jesus’ conception began to be celebrated on March 25 of the Roman calendar while His death and resurrection were celebrated on the Friday and Sunday of Passover week by the Jewish calendar. 

Out of this eventually developed the complete Church Year which celebrates the date 9 months after March 25 (which is December 25) as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and through its various seasons remembers the events of Jesus’ life during the first half of the calendar and His teachings during the second half of that calendar. 

In addition, one can also look to the record that John the Baptizer was conceived on Yom Kippur, the day his father served in the Temple for the Jewish Day of Atonement, which occurs in the last week of September.  Luke then records that Mary conceived Jesus when Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy with John, which would be the last week of March, resulting in Jesus birth nine months later, in the final week of December. 

But, the significance of Christmas does not come because Jesus birth is the act by which He saves.  The perfect life He lived after that birth, and His death and suffering of God’s wrath on the cross in place of sinners are necessary in order for salvation to be accomplished.  His birth alone would be majestic and worthy of note, but it would not by itself be able to deliver forgiveness of sins to humanity or reconcile us to God. 

Instead, we celebrate the birth of Christ because it is the concrete event where God’s salvation first becomes visible to His creation in the person of Jesus.  In the early Church, the Annunciation (the angel’s announcement which caused Jesus’ conception in the Virgin Mary) was actually revered of more highly than Christmas, because they recognized that the significant event was already full and complete as Jesus was already fully God and fully human from the moment of His conception—a truth Christians refer to as the Incarnation. 

However, we celebrate Christmas because of the same significant truth, which is that God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus.  God the Son voluntarily allowed Himself to be conceived, born, grow, and mature in the normal course of human life.  He became fully human so that by taking on our flesh He could stand in our place both in life and in death. 

He accomplished that in the events of Good Friday and Resurrection Day, but we recognize and celebrate that He began the earthly life which leads to that on the day of His birth—whether that literally happened on December 25 or not. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Churching the State to Justify the Samaritans

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the Good Samaritan and Syrian Refugees:  

Q:  Does the Bible offer any principles about what the U.S. Government policy should be on whether to take refugees from Syria and the Middle East?  Are the parable of the Good Samaritan or the Old Testament laws regarding treatment of foreigners relevant to the question?

While many people might read the parable of the Good Samaritan as a moral lesson about charity and how a person should respond to others in need, it is actually about much more.  While it certainly is good to help those who are suffering (which other passages of Scripture reveal), the parable is, first and foremost, about Jesus Himself.  In the parable, the character of the Good Samaritan is not a president or a senator.  In fact, the character of the Good Samaritan is not even any ordinary human.  The Good Samaritan is Jesus!

And the character in the parable that represents humanity is not even the priest or the Levite, but instead, the victim is the character in the parable which plays our role.  Jesus, the Good Samaritan, comes down into our uncleanness to cure and heal us, completely apart from our worthiness or ability to repay.  Understanding this reality completely changes how we approach the parable and rules out its application to a government’s acceptance of refugees, unless we want to suggest that the Government or the president are our savior. 

Many who have attempted this application have also made reference to a handful of Old Testament laws regarding the treatment of foreigners.  The difficulty with this attempt is that those laws were not universal laws given to humanity, but rather, they were given particularly to the nation of Israel.  So, if we were to suggest that these laws carry over into the present day, rather than being fulfilled in Jesus, we would have to apply them not to the United States Government, since it is not constituted by God or committed to serving Him, but rather to the Church. 

Probably the most relevant passages of Scripture in relation to this issue are the New Testament sections that describe the role of government, particularly in Paul’s Epistles.  In these passages, the role of Governments which are not Ancient Israel is consistently described as being to provide safety and stability to their citizens.  The Church, then, has the role of helping those in need under the umbrella of that stable and secure nation. 

So, in the present circumstances, the Government’s role is to do whatever is in the best interest of our nation’s security, even if it is not the most humanitarian choice for those outside of our borders, because its duty is to its own citizens.  If it comes down to helping people from other parts of the globe with the result of incurring a substantial risk to its own citizens’ safety, or providing security to its own citizens while denying help to non-citizens, our government’s Biblically-mandated priority is to protect its own citizens. 

The Church’s role, on the other hand, is to help those in need.  So, if our government should choose to allow the entry of refugees, then Christians are called to demonstrate the Lord’s mercy by helping those who arrive on our shores.  If the government determines the threat to our security is too great, then we are still able to provide help through the hands of our fellow Christians and their Churches in the parts of the world where the refugees find a home. 

The government has its own particular God-given role, and the Church has its own, but as we address these circumstances, it is important to distinguish those roles and apply the proper scriptures to the proper roles as we seek Biblical answers to the questions at hand. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

Does Paul contradict Jesus?

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the alleged contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and Paul:

Q:  Do St. Paul’s writings in the Epistles of the New Testament contradict the things that Jesus said as recorded in the Gospels?  Did Paul add to or alter Jesus’ message when he was writing to the churches, and what gave him authority in those churches if he was not a follower at the time of the Resurrection?

This is a recurring accusation during the most recent two centuries of Christianity:  That Paul’s teachings in the epistles do not align with the things said by Jesus during our records of His earthly life and ministry.  The exact accusation often varies, with those on one end of the spectrum accusing Paul of being too doctrinal in comparison to their perception of Jesus as a free spirit whose ministry centered on helping people, and those on the other end of the spectrum accusing Paul of being too lenient regarding matters of the Law—whether those found in the Old Testament or matters of personal holiness—while they believed Jesus to have been more strict about these things. 

Usually this kind of response to the content of the New Testament results in a person diminishing portions of the New Testament in favor of others, rather than trying to reconcile the statements and understand the original intent of Jesus speech or Paul’s writing to discover that they actually do agree.  When it falls short of outright rejection of Paul’s epistles or other New Testament books, this kind of approach to Jesus and Paul usually results at the very least in some imaginative story-telling to explain how the early Church came to a unanimous consensus regarding Paul’s letters if they are actually so far removed from Jesus’ teachings. 

One way in which it is often quite simple to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and Paul that seem to contradict on the surface is to dig deeper into what they are actually communicating.  Since most readers in this part of the world are limited to reading Scripture in English, we sometimes forget that Jesus did not speak and Paul did not write in English, but we are reading a translation of their words.  In translation, there are often not direct equivalents for the words being translated, and English often cannot convey the time and duration as precisely as Greek did.  So, even if we have the most accurate translation possible, a reader might understand the English word differently than the translator intended to use it, or we may miss that a particular statement was made only for a particular circumstance while another was made as a standing, universal proclamation.  The majority of contradiction accusations I see can be solved in this way, and even for those who do not have access to original language training, looking at a verse in multiple reliable English translations sometimes clarifies the intent of the passage. 

Another difficulty for those who propose a contradiction is that the New Testament itself describes that the 11 original disciples of Jesus had access to Paul’s letters, and they examined him and his message, ultimately endorsing him and approving that He was proclaiming the same thing as they had learned from Jesus.  Likewise, we have no record that any person at the time of the writing or in the following century ever proposed that there was a problem between Paul’s teachings and the things said and done by Jesus.  Instead, it was universally understood that Paul was writing explanation to the churches about what the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus accomplished and how they were to apply this to life in their congregations. 

When the New Testament is read with care to understand the original meaning the authors intended and the history is taken in full perspective, it becomes exceedingly clear that Paul was, in fact, proclaiming the same message as Jesus and pointing people to the authentic Jesus and not to some new formulation that was hijacking Jesus for other goals. 

Questions may be submitted by email to or sent to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Forfeiting Grace to Embrace Sin

For this week's newspapers, I answered a reader question about how many sins it takes for a Christian to lose salvation:

Q:  How much sin can a person commit and still be accepted by God into eternal life at the final judgment?  How much sin should we on earth tolerate before we no longer consider a person a Christian? 

Peter once asked Jesus a question about how many times he should forgive a person who had sinned against him.  Thinking according to the Pharisees tradition of that time, Peter was expecting an answer in the single digits, perhaps seven.  Jesus answer, however, was “seventy times seven.” 

While Jesus’ answer to Peter deals with how many times people should forgive sins committed by and against one another, some of us, like Pastors or parents, are assigned the vocation to take concern over whether a person’s sins against God are forgiven and where the person stands in relation to God.  Even though not in a position of God-given authority over them, a Christian friend or neighbor might also be concerned over where a given person stands in relation to God’s forgiveness because they fear their neighbor may be in danger of suffering God’s eternal punishment for sin for themselves. 

It helps to begin with the fact that Jesus paid for all sin—“the sin of the world” as John says in his Gospel.  Those who rely on Him to forgive them receive His grace, and have no more penalty left to account for on their own.  However, as long as they live this side of the grave, they remain incapable of perfectly refraining from sin.  While we do not excuse sin or treat it lightly, we also acknowledge that this sin too is forgiven, and not merely the sin committed prior to trusting in Jesus. 

Some might wrongly conclude that this teaching of grace then frees a person to live in any way that seems appealing and act in any way which feels right.  St. Paul answers this question in his letter to the Romans, though, by responding to the question of “Should we sin more so that grace might abound?” with the strongest possible denial the Greek language has to offer—“Certainly not!” or “May it never be!” 

Having been forgiven, the Christian is called then to avoid sin and seek to live in agreement with God’s will—even though they continue to fail.  This is why many of our churches begin the week’s services with a Confession of Sins, after which the pastor proclaims God’s forgiveness once again to those who trust in Jesus.  When it comes to how many sins a person might commit before forfeiting salvation, it is not a matter of counting, but even for the Christian remains a matter of faith.  Those who trust in Jesus remain forgiven. 

However, there is a difference between one who commits sin and one who embraces it as a lifestyle or adopts it as an identity.  When those assigned the task of spiritual care examine those under our authority, this is what we consider:  What do they confess?  For those who acknowledge their sin and struggle against it, we act with compassion, pronouncing once again God’s grace to forgive their sin.  On the other hand when faced with those who love and embrace their sin or consider it a defining characteristic of their identity, we must pronounce God’s Law and warning instead, in hopes that they will return and be forgiven, because defending their sin contradicts their claim to trust in Jesus. 

While it remains solely the privilege of God Himself to know the contents of a person’s heart and the status of their soul, we here on earth can observe the words and actions of our neighbor and warn or encourage them with the applicable laws or promises which our Lord has given. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Earning Blessing

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about whether faith or obedience are able to earn blessing from God: 

Q:  Does God grant earthly blessings to people based on the sincerity of their faith, and does He bless Christians with health, wealth, or other prosperity based on the degree to which they obey Him?

It would be easy to make conclusions that God’s blessings in this world depend on the performance of the individuals receiving them, because such a conclusion would fit with the majority of religious thought that has taken place around the world throughout history, and would fit with the way that we are used to things working among humans in business and commerce. 

However, no matter how reasonable this conclusion seems in light of our earthly experience with other authorities, the Lord who has revealed Himself as the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not operate on those same principles. 

When various religions make propositions about earning a god’s blessing, they are operating under the assumption of a deity that does not desire to do good to us, but that we need to achieve a certain level of obedience in order to force his hand.  On the other hand, the God of the Bible is consistently portrayed as one who desires to give and to bless, and we are undeserving recipients of His gracious gifts. 

This is particularly true in spiritual matters, where God forgives sins as a pure gift because of the crucified sacrifice of Jesus, but it also applies to the many earthly blessings over which we have limited control, such as weather, the growth of crops, or good health.  Jesus comments on this with His words in Matthew 5 that God makes the sun to shine on both the evil and the good and the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. 

We can also observe that in this life, those whose faith appears deepest do not always experience perfect health or abundant wealth.  Instead, they may sometimes suffer more than others while those who commit vile acts seem to prosper.  Many of the heroes of the Bible are perfect examples of this, as the Apostles and Prophets often faced fierce opposition and the majority of them died for their faith rather than experiencing earthly success. 

There is one sense in which this is true, but it functions in a natural way rather than a supernatural one.  This is because the creator of the world in which we live is also the giver of the laws by which we are commanded to live in it.  As a result, a great deal of suffering and tragedy can be avoided when God’s laws are obeyed.  So, for example, the God who created nature, the body, and family relationships gives laws which, if obeyed, would allow a person to avoid many conflicts, diseases and disorders, while the probability of numerous natural consequences increases dramatically when a person chooses to depart from that law. 

Ultimately, understanding this truth may help a person avoid a great deal of false guilt that might arise if they did live faithfully yet see their desires unfulfilled or find themselves experiencing suffering or tragedy.  It also serves to remind us that as long as we live in this world, our obedience will remain imperfect and we will still face trials and suffering, but we look forward with hope to a resurrected life which we receive as pure gift and in which these things will be no more.  Even though the promises we do see of abundance and prosperity in Scripture are left partially and unevenly fulfilled in this world, they will be fully and completely fulfilled in the New Creation to come. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

All you have to do is... Seriously???

For this week's newspapers I answered a question about whether humans have free will and to what extent:  

Q:  Is it true that humans have a free will, or are our life and eternity laid down by another power which causes us to be destined for the events which happen? 

This is a question which both religion and philosophy have both struggled over the course of centuries, and among Christians, it has historically been the source of some of the most heated disagreements about doctrinal matters. 

Since for people who live in the Western world, particularly in the United States, much of our way of life is founded on the ideas of freedom and opportunity, we often get the impression that this freedom applies in all areas of life. 

When we are talking about earthly things, this is true for the most part.  The majority of the time, humans do have free will when it comes to merely earthly matters.  So, when it comes to what we eat, where we live, the things we purchase, what we will do for an occupation and how we will carry out that occupation, humans have a free choice, provided the choices of their fellow humans do not impose upon them. 

However, the Bible makes clear that in spiritual matters, circumstances are far different.  Some of the highlights among these include Paul’s statement in the book of Romans, quoting from the Psalms, that “No one seeks God” and “No one does good, not even one,”  along with the prophet Jeremiah’s statement that the human heart is deceitful above all things. 

Paul also makes statements throughout the books of Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians that salvation is “by grace,” that is that it is a pure gift.  Now if our salvation is a pure gift, except that we must exercise an act of free will to make a choice, then it is no longer pure gift, but rather the result of the human work of making a choice. 

In response to this, some have suggested that there is no free will at all in humans.  They conclude that humans have no free will at all in spiritual things, and some even extend this to earthly things to the extent that all things are caused and determined by God with humans merely carrying out what has been decreed. 

This oversimplifies a highly-nuanced teaching of Scripture, though, whether we apply this idea, called determinism or fatalism, to only spiritual things or to all of life.  Simple answers are always attractive, but rarely manage to answer the question with the full depth of Scripture. 

The witness of the Bible’s authors is consistently that God receives full credit for any person whose sin is forgiven and that they played no role in earning or deserving that gift.  However, when speaking of those who receive the punishment their own sins deserve, God never receives the blame, but that blame is rather squarely assigned to the person who committed the sin. 

There is also a distinction regarding whether the question is asked of a Christian or of an unconverted person.  For those who are apart from Christ, it is as if they possess a free will, but it is restrained to only choose evil in spiritual matters, and in capable of choosing good.  However, for those who have been given the gift of trust in Jesus, that will has been un-chained from that point forward, the new person created through faith and Baptism does indeed have a free will, although it continues to struggle against the old sinner that still dwells within them for the remainder of their natural life. 

Ultimately, humans do possess a free will, which all people are able to exercise in merely earthly matters, but none at all as it touches on salvation; and even after being freed by the Holy Spirit’s work it continues to struggle against sin’s restraints until they depart this life to await the final Resurrection with their Lord. 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Born in the Wrong Body?

My article for this week's newspapers answers a question regarding the unity of the body and soul and those  who would suggest one is superior or that the two can be mis-matched:

Q:  Is it possible for a person to be “trapped in the wrong body” or for there to be a mismatch between who they are physically and spiritually?

It used to be that when a person said, “I am a marathon runner trapped in a sumo wrestler’s body,” or “I am a 29 year old trapped in a 70 year old body,” that it was merely a figure of speech that a person was using to indicate that their attitude did not line up with their physical attributes. 

Today, however, such claims are regularly stated with the intention of describing what a person believes to be a factual set of circumstances.  News stories abound where such statements are made about a given person’s race, sex, health, or abilities, but those who hear such claims, particularly Christians, would do well to consider the implications of such claims for our understanding of the human person if they would be factual. 

Philosophers in Greek and Roman times often debated whether a person was composed of two or three or another number of components parts.  Such explanations would include component parts such as body, soul, mind, and spirit, and in such systems of thought, it was usually proposed that the immaterial elements made up the real person and the body was portrayed either as incidental or sometimes even like a sort of prison. 

In other parts of the world, a variety of religious philosophies teach that the “real” person is the spirit, which is then born repeatedly through a series of several lifetimes, taking on different bodies.  The common theme between these views of the human person is that they begin with components, move to the idea of the person, then assign one component as the one that is essential to humanity and the others as auxiliary. 

Biblical understanding of humanity, on the other hand, sees the person, although composed of both material and immaterial aspects, as created whole.  This can be seen from the creation accounts of Genesis to Paul’s epistles, and everywhere between.  Any distinction or discrepancy we perceive between these aspects is only the result of a fallen world, and something we will only experience during our mortal lives, because we will be made whole at the resurrection. 

There are times when a person might perceive a difference between the roles or traits that society expects of them based on their outward characteristics, and they make such statements as a way of legitimately challenging the assigned traits which arise from culture rather than Scripture. 

In other cases, particularly those regarding gender, a person may suffer a biochemical irregularity which causes them to, feel, behave, or perceive themselves in ways that do not fit the body they are born with.  In such cases it is not that a wrong combination of material and immaterial elements have been joined in the person, or that one element is the real person and the other a mistake.  Instead, even though they were not created to feel the discord they experience, a part of them is not functioning as designed for them to be comfortable as the integrated human being that they were created to be. 

As Christians navigate these kind of difficulties themselves or help their neighbors who may suffer from such false perceptions, we recognize that they are a whole person, and since we cannot see or understand the inner workings of their immaterial elements, the body God gave them and its genetic code is the only reliable marker of who that person is before God. 

In light of this, we teach that one aspect of the person is not real while the other is false, but that they are a whole person.   Accordingly, we seek to the best of our ability to assist them in embracing and living out their reality as a whole person, and while they endure these struggles in this life, we support and encourage them through the gifts our Lord has given in His Church until our Lord returns to make them whole and align all things as He designed them to be. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Circumcising Adiaphora

For this week's newspapers, I answered the final follow-up in a series of 3 about what makes and does not make a person sinful by answering how a Christian chooses about what to do when the action is neither commanded nor forbidden by genuine divine laws:  

Q:  If it is not the things we consume or touch, or even our actions, that determine our status before God, then how do Christians choose a course of action in decisions which involve things beyond the Ten Commandments?

When a person understands the fact that their status with God the Father is determined by Jesus and His perfect life and crucified death rather than their own performance, it can be a difficult adjustment because it seems at first to leave a vacuum in the area of ethics and morality. 

However, the Christian still honors God’s law, and even desires to keep it, but as a result of God’s goodness to them rather than as a condition of salvation.  When it regards which actions are a sin, this is guided by the Ten Commandments, as understood in the light of all of Scripture, but there are many choices where none of the options would seem to violate one of these commandments, but a choice still remains to be made. 

Sometimes, there are clear New Testament instructions on a matter, usually dealing with matters of the way the Church carries out its work.  One of the clearest examples of this is Paul’s instructions to Timothy and Titus about the qualifications for pastors and elders. 

In another instance, there was a question about whether the gentile Christians should eat certain meats or do other things that were forbidden by the Old Testament ceremonial law.  The result was that the apostles held a council at Jerusalem and determined that these laws did not apply to Gentiles when they became Christians, but that they should observe a few customs out of respect for their Jewish Christian neighbors. 

Paul Himself had to make a choice about the law of circumcision when he began to enlist the help of non-Jewish men as associates in the mission.  On one occasion, he decided that Timothy should be circumcised like the Jews were according to their law, but on another, he refused to allow Barnabas to be circumcised. 

This is because it was neither commanded nor forbidden that gentiles to be circumcised like Jewish people were before Jesus came, so Paul chose what best taught the people what they needed to understand.  This is what he means when he talks about “becoming all things to all men” in 1 Corinthians 9. 

Because Timothy would be serving in a setting where he would be among Jews, Paul allowed for him to be circumcised so that it would not be an obstacle to his congregation hearing and believing the Gospel.  On the other hand, Barnabas would be serving in a time and place where Judaizers were seeking to force the Old Testament law upon Christians, so Paul refused to allow his circumcision in order to demonstrate the Christians’ freedom from Old Testament ceremonial laws. 

In both cases, Paul made the decision that most clearly provided a path for people to hear and believe the Gospel without the corruption of false teaching—making concessions for the sake of those who might be weak, but standing firmly against those whose pride undermined the Gospel. 

Christians are called to similar commitments when faced with present customs and behaviors that are matters of controversy, but don’t relate to the sins specified in the Ten Commandments.  This would include things like alcohol or tobacco use, many expressions of language, and displays of wealth, among many others.  The Christian’s goal is to make such choices in the way that avoids being an obstacle for the Gospel or which tears down obstacles placed by others. 

So, when we make choices, we try to do what would be least confrontational to our neighbors who are offended by certain things because they are misinformed or fearful, but when confronted with opponents who seek to enforce their choices upon us out of pride, then we are called to stand against them so that our neighbors’ freedom and confidence in the Gospel would not be assaulted. 

Questions may be submitted by email to or sent to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA  50522.

Rev. Jason P. Peterson

Pastor, St. John’s Lutheran Church – Burt