Thursday, June 18, 2009


My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Ascension:

Q: If the Bible says that Jesus ascended into Heaven after He rose from the dead, why do we always hear it said that He is present with us now?

The Bible tells us that Jesus died on a Friday afternoon, but rose to life again on Sunday morning. After He rose from the dead, He appeared to hundreds of people, including His disciples, over the course of the next 40 days (Luke 24, John 20-21). On the fortieth day, while Jesus was talking with His disciples, “He began to be lifted up, and a cloud hid Him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) Several New Testament passages also speak of Jesus as having ascended into Heaven and that He is “seated at the right hand of God the Father…” as many Christians confess in the Apostles’ Creed.

In other places, Jesus promises that He will be with His disciples and all Christians. He says, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). He also promises, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:20) When the apostle Paul writes letters to churches in the New Testament, He often includes a blessing which says that God will be with those who read the letter. (Sometimes He says Jesus, other times God, Lord, or the Holy Spirit.)

On one hand, the Gospels and the book of Acts clearly teach that Jesus did ascend into Heaven. On the other hand, Jesus’ own words, as well as the letters of Paul clearly teach that God will be with Christians until Jesus comes again on the last day. How can these both be true?

We know that God is present everywhere. In Jeremiah 23:24, God says, “’Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him? …Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” Since Jesus is God, He is present in all times and places, but when He makes the promises mentioned above, He is talking specifically to His followers, not to all people. The fact that God is present everywhere is the same for all people whether they follow Jesus or not. The presence Jesus is promising is something special that is not true for the rest of the world.

Sometimes when we are apart from a friend or family member, they say that they are with us in Spirit, and we often speak of deceased loved ones as being with us in our memory. Here, though, Jesus is promising far more than that we will remember Him or that he will be with us “in spirit.” Before Jesus died, He promised His disciples that after He had risen, He would send the Holy Spirit to guide them and remind them of the things He had said (John 14-16), and just before He ascended, He again promised to send the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:8).

Whenever we read or hear the Bible, (or remember what we have read from it, or hear a friend talking about Jesus, hear a song which talks about Him, etc.) God sends the Holy Spirit, through whom Jesus becomes supernaturally present with us.

Furthermore, on the night before He was crucified, Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body.” Then He took wine and said, “This is my blood.” He then instructed His disciples to keep on doing this in remembrance of Him. Whenever Christians participate in the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or Eucharist), Jesus body and blood become present in a special way among them. Since Jesus is both God and human, even His human body can be present all over the world at the same time.

When we go about our day, Jesus is present with us, just as He is with every person, but for Christians, Jesus comes to us in an extraordinary way through the God’s Word, the Bible, and when we take part in Lord’s Supper.

Readers are encouraged to submit questions for inclusion in future issues. According to your preference, you may include your first name or submit questions anonymously, and I will do my best to answer your questions as my knowledge and research allow and according to their suitability for publication. You may submit questions by email to or by mail to P.O. Box 195; Burt, IA 50522.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Sacraments

My article from today's Algona Upper Des Moines about the Sacraments:

Q:  Why do Lutherans and Catholics have a different number of Sacraments?  Do other Christian denominations share the concept of Sacrament?

In general, there are three conclusions among Christians regarding the number of Sacraments.  Some conclude that there are seven.  Others conclude that there are two, and still others conclude that there are none.  The differences between Christians regarding the number of Sacraments are largely a result of their different definitions of what a Sacrament is. 

Roman Catholics consider the seven Sacraments to be, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Sacraments as, “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”  In addition to Roman Catholics, Episcopal and Eastern Orthodox churches generally agree with this list of seven Sacraments. 

In contrast, Lutherans consider a Sacrament to be a sacred act, instituted by God Himself, using a visible element which is combined with God’s Word to give forgiveness for sins.  Based on this definition, Lutherans usually conclude that there are two Sacraments, which are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or Eucharist).  Like Catholics, Lutherans also perform Confirmation, Marriage, and Absolution (somewhat like Penance), although they do not call them Sacraments.  Most Lutherans also ordain their pastors and some practice Anointing of the Sick, although, again, not as Sacraments.  The reason Lutherans do not consider these latter five practices to be Sacraments is because they either do not have a visible element (like water, bread, or wine), or because it is not said in the Bible that they forgive sins.  Most churches of the Calvinist (Reformed or Presbyterian) and Methodist traditions arrive at the same conclusion as Lutherans regarding the number of the Sacraments, although they do so for different reasons.

A third group of churches have significantly different beliefs regarding the Sacraments from those churches already mentioned.  The statements of belief written by most Baptists and Pentecostals, as well as many independent or nondenominational congregations, do not list any Sacraments.  They do still make use of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but they see them as symbolic acts of devotion to God which are done by Christians, rather than God’s actions to forgive sins.  As a result of this belief, they use the word Ordinance instead of Sacrament to emphasize this difference of belief.  Some of these churches may also observe the ordination of pastors and anoint the sick, but not as an ordinance or a Sacrament.

All types of Christians continue to keep Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as part of their practices, although there are significant differences about what is happening there.  All Christians still practice marriage, even though not all consider it a Sacrament.  I think it could also be said that nearly all would agree that it is good to pray for the sick (Anointing), ask God’s blessing on pastors (Ordination), teach our beliefs to young people (Confirmation), and forgive sins which are confessed (Penance or Absolution). The disagreement doesn’t seem to be whether these things should be done, but rather what is really taking place, what it should be called, and how it should be done.