Thursday, November 1, 2007

Who takes the first step in salvation?

The question has been raised in several venues recently whether when a person comes to church, if they are taking the first step in coming to God. Similarly, it has been asked that if God is taking the first step, then is He not working outside of the Means of Grace? Since Lutherans teach that God has only promised to work salvation through the Means of Grace, and by grace alone, the interplay of answers to these two questions becomes complex.

1. Does God work apart from the Word and Sacrament? Certainly He does, but only according to His Law! According to His grace, He has only promised to work through Word and Sacrament, but according to His Law, he is at work in all things. This is why they're called the "Means of Grace." God has only given specific promises regarding how he will work according to grace, not according to Law. Look at the Old Testament. God is given the credit for numerous events in the history of Israel and the world without doing so through Word and Sacrament, but He is not doing any of it according to His grace. It is much like natural and special revelation. Can we see that there is a god through nature and that he is powerful? Yes, but we cannot know anything about His identity or His grace apart from the Scriptures. Similarly, God is certainly present everywhere and in control over all things, but only present to work according to His Grace through the Word and Sacraments.

2. In addition to being driven by Law to a church through tragic events or through realizing his sinfulness, a person would not know to go to the church unless he had heard some word of Gospel, no matter how simple, or else why would He look to the church? Certainly this is not saving faith, for that cannot be unless the forgiveness of sins won by Christ on the cross is articulated, but certainly whatever promise or hope the man heard from his neighbor, even if only a vague summary, such as that the Church has the answers to his problems or the fulfillment of his needs, is drawing Him to the Church to hear the preaching of Christ. If he will be saved, He must then hear of the forgiveness of sins through the Word of the Gospel and receive that Word made visible in Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper.

In all things, God gets credit for salvation. He works according to His Law to drive men away from security in their sin and toward Himself, and He works according to His Grace through the Word and Sacraments to forgive sins and give eternal life and salvation.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Is God the author of evil?

A rough translation of Isaiah 45:7 could be that "[God] forms light and creates darkness, makes peace and creates evil." For one who was seeking to ask whether God is responsible for moral evil in the world, such a translation could result in a resounding "yes." Those with less pure motives might even use such a verse to accuse the God of the scriptures of being imperfect, evil, or false. Before we let such a conclusion stand, let us examine the verse more closely.

"Evil" meaning moral evil, sin, etc. is actually a very rare definition of the Hebrew word "ra." (ranging between definition 3rd and 10th in various lexicons) I would disagree with libronix and other parsing tools identification of the word in this verse as a substantive adjective, and rather classify it as a masculine noun. (The forms for adjective and masculine noun are identical for this word.) The primary meaning of "ra" when used as a noun is "evil, disstress, adversity." When one asks philosophical questions such as, "is God the author of evil?" it refers to moral evil. Evil in the primary use of "ra" as well as in this verse refers to evil circumstances, such as come upon one in a natural disaster or the aftermath of a military defeat. As a result, I would translate the verse as, "who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates distress. I am the Lord, who does all these." Several translations render "ra" in this verse as "calamity" also, which is in keeping with this definition of the word.

This is a poetic section of Isaiah, so examination of the parallelism of the text is important as to its meaning. Each of the first two lines of the verse consists of a pair of opposites, and the two pairs are compared to one another through a synonymous parallelism. Therefore, Just as God "forms light and creates darkness" so also He "makes peace and creates distress." This assertion that each pair of opposites is a synonym for the other is further strengthened by the fact that the second verb in each pair is identical.

Furthermore, within its pair of opposites, "ra" is not compared with "tov" (good), but instead with "shalom" (peace). If God was said to make good and create evil, interpretation of "ra" as moral evil would be justified, but just as light and dark are opposites, so must be "shalom" and "ra." Therefore, evil in this verse must be the oppoiste of peace rather than of good, thus the translation of "distress" (or adversity, calamity.)

Looking at the context of this verse, we see it is Isaiah's prophesy concerning Cyrus (who did not know God [v. 4-5]) who will allow the captive Jews to return to their land. God is about to give "peace" by returning His people to the land, just as He also brought the "evil" of their downfall and captivity to Babylon. The Old Testament speaks frequently about God fighting against His own people when they have been unfaithful. So, here, he is about to use an unbelieving pagan ruler to return the people to the land, just as he used an unbelieving pagan ruler to exile them in the first place. Even the actions of pagans and evil men serve to accomplish God's will.

Several commentaries also propose that this shows God to be greater than the Persian gods. The Persian religious system was dualistic. There were separate good and evil gods. One created light and was responsible for all good; the other created darkness and was responsible for all evil. This serves to show Cyrus and those who witness the events of scripture that unlike the dualistic Persian god, YHWH is in control of all things with no rival, making Him far greater.

Why would God work "evil" or distress, calamity, and adversity? God's will comes down to one thing. Salvation. (See Luther's Catechisms) God uses peace and adversity as He wills to achieve the final outcome of salvation. This is done both individually and corporately. He preserved the remnant of Israel in the Old Testament to provide for the incarnation of Christ to make atonement, and He individually uses all elements at His disposal to attain the goal of the salvation of individuals as their circumstances drive them to give thanks to God for blessing (peace) or drive them to despair of their own works and rely on God to save them (distress, adversity). This theme of scripture can be seen in this chapter of Isaiah as in v. 6, Isaiah lays out the purpose of God's activity, "That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no other besides Me." After a poetic section on God's power and majesty, chapter 45 finally ends with a declaration of God as the only savior, in whom alone is righteousness and strength, to whom all will one day bow and the admonition to turn to Him. (v. 21-25).

Kretzman's commentary summarizes this verse by saying, "Both good fortune and misfortune are sent by [God]."

All of God's works, whether they appear good or evil in the sight of man, serve His one purpose, which is salvation. This is the point of thse verses. God is working through all events of history to bring people to "be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth." (1 Timothy 2:4)

(I expand on this idea that God uses tragedy to accomplish His will in a previous post at

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Sundays "in" Advent?

This time of year there is often much made of the fact that the Sundays during the season of Lent are properly spoken of as being "in" Lent and not "of" Lent. This is because there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, so the six Sundays in Lent do not count toward the 40 days of Lent. The question recently arose among some friends whether the Sundays of Advent are viewed similarly.

As I began to research this question, I could find nothing in Talley's Origins of the Liturgical Year, Reed's The Lutheran Liturgy, Lang's Ceremony and Celebration, Maschke's Gathered Guests, or in Lutheran Worship History and Practice which spoke of the Sundays during Advent being "in" but not "of" Advent. At the same time, many of these sources do make the note that the Sundays of Lent are not considered to be "of" the season, only occurring within it. Reed makes the comment, though, that "The four Sundays in Advent are all festivals," which would seem to indicate that the Sundays themselves not only bear the character of the season, but even create it.

Penitence has not at all times and in all places been considered characteristic of Advent as it has of Lent. The modern view by many that the character of Advent is anticipation and joy rather than penitence is not without historical precedent. Maschke notes that the first-known celebrations of Advent in fifth-century Gaul were considered a joyous festival with the use of white vestments.

In looking over the liturgical calendars of LW and LSB, there appear to be three ways to name Sundays which are related to a festival, without being the festival. Those are Sundays "in" a season, "after" a feast, or "of" the season. The only Sundays referenced as "of" the season are those Sundays "of" Easter. (In TLH, the only Sundays designated as "of" are those of Holy Week. Sundays following Easter are referred to as "after Easter.") This we know to be because Easter is considered to be an eight-week long feast, unlike other feasts which only cover a single Sunday. Those Sundays after Pentecost and Epiphany , are simply numbered to mark time following the feast and are not themselves part of it, and their precise numbering and propers have been variable even within the past century. This leaves the Sundays "in" a Season. Since they could not be "of" a festival such as Easter, nor are they "after" a festival like Pentecost or Epiphany, they are marked as "in" their respective season. While this preposition is noted as significant regarding Lent, none of the authors I researched made the same connection in Advent. Also, in LW and LSB, the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before Easter are referred to as "in" Holy Week. Certainly these are still counted as a part of Holy Week and fully bear its Character even though they are designated as "in" it. It would appear logical to conclude that "in" is simply the most linguistically sensible preposition for Advent. Maschke and Reed's observations about Advent seem to indicate that the Sundays of Advent are not considered to be different in character than the season itself.

Also, because Advent is not set at a specific number of days, it is not necessary to exclude Sundays from the count in order to arrive at the appropriate 40 when beginning on a Wednesday. Advent flows from the number of Sundays preceding Christmas. It begins on a Sunday, and has a varying number of days, ending on a variable day of the week, while Lent begins on a Wednesday, lasts a specified number of days, and always ends on Sunday, and therefore revolves around the number of days in the season rather than the number of Sundays.

I would conclude that Advent's Sundays are labeled as "in" the season not so much because they are not "counted" toward the season, but more because the designation "of" is reserved for the special character possessed by the Sundays of Easter, and therefore not appropriate to Advent.