All posts by Steven King

The Holy Spirit’s Work

“To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, he has provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” (Augsburg Confession, Article 5)

For some time now, in my articles for Connections, I have been writing under the title of “Sacramental Discipleship.” The main theme I have tried to convey is that in our lives as disciples of Jesus, we serve as a kind of living “means of grace” in service to the world. That is, God uses us – real human beings – to convey the message of the Gospel through our word and actions, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Scripture teaches us that it is the Holy Spirit who creates faith, and he does it by means of his Word, spoken and heard (Romans 10:17). It is by the Spirit’s power, active in the message of Christ, that God turns us into believers. This foundational truth underlies the very definition of faith that Martin Luther describes in his Small Catechism.

Many often point to Luther’s words in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, where Luther affirms that his faith in Christ did not come “by my own reason or strength,” but rather because “the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel … and kept me in true faith.”

Luther’s statement echoes the Scriptural affirmation that “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It also reflects the same definition of faith that Luther presents when he addresses the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Luther wrote, “The kingdom of God comes indeed by itself, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.” First off, we must realize that the biblical phrase “kingdom of God” is a reference to the reality of faith in our present lives.  Such language is not about an earthly kingdom of this world, nor is it simply about a future life in heaven. It is the way Jesus described what it means when he rules as King in our hearts through faith (Matthew 6:33).

So when Luther goes on to ask the question, “How does God’s kingdom come?” he is able to say plainly, “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and live a godly life now and in eternity.” The kingdom comes to us when God himself brings us to trust and believe in Jesus.

But underneath Luther’s statement is also a clue to how Discipleship fits into this equation. As followers of Jesus, it is clear that we are not the ones who create faith – either in ourselves or others. But God does use us to make it happen. God has sent us out into the world as bearers of his Word. We are the instruments and ambassadors of God through which his message of the Gospel goes out to all nations – not to mention our own local congregation and communities. The Holy Spirit uses our witness as the means by which he enters the ear of listeners and takes hold of their hearts. As disciples of Christ, God uses us as his “means of grace” to communicate the promise of the Gospel to others.

As Scripture tells us: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). You have the promise that the Holy Spirit is at work in the words you speak in the name of Christ.

“As through means, God gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” This is how God builds his kingdom in the world, one believer at a time.

— Pastor Steven E. King

In His Name Alone

“Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.” (Acts 4:10)

Chapter 4 of the Book of Acts shows us the conclusion to an event that happened in the previous chapter. Peter and John had been going up to the temple one day in Jerusalem when they encountered a man born lame who was begging for alms. What he received that day was much more!  Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) Scripture goes on to tell us that Peter “took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong” (v.7).

One of the things that is notable in these two chapters in Acts is the emphasis placed on the “name” of Jesus Christ. Peter could have just as easily talked about the power, spirit, or grace of Jesus Christ; all that would have been just as accurate and true. But he focused on the Name – as if to make it clear that Jesus’ name was the means by which our Lord conveyed his power, spirit, and grace.

Likewise, when he was questioned by the religious leaders about this miraculous healing, Peter again emphasized the Name. Speaking of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he affirmed it was through “his name and by faith in his name” that this man was healed and made strong (v. 4:16). And if the point was not plain enough, Peter applied this promise to all people, saying of Jesus, that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

In the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray “hallowed be thy name” we are asking God to reveal the power and holiness of his name in our lives. To call something “holy” is to say that it is special or unique – something “set apart” from all else. In Peter and John’s encounter with the man born lame, the power of Jesus’ name had certainly been made manifest. But in that same miracle, the holiness of Jesus’ name had also been revealed.

To have the audacity to say that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” tells us that Jesus’ name is special and unique. To say that only by Jesus’ name can any of us be saved shows his name is indeed “holy” – set apart to God alone. God “hallowed” his name that day through Peter and John. Our prayer is that God would do so in our lives as well.

Martin Luther reminds us that this is what true discipleship is all about. He says, “God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we ask in this prayer that it may be made holy among us!” Our life lived as a faithful disciple of Jesus does not make God holy. Rather, it is God’s own holiness revealed in Jesus Christ that makes us faithful.

As disciples, we are the earthen vessels that God uses to reveal himself to the world. We are living sacraments, so to speak, as he uses our lives as his “means of grace” to communicate the promise of the Gospel to others.

As witnesses and evangelists, we are simply tools in the hands of our holy Lord. But what an amazing gift it is to know that he has not only given us the privilege of calling upon his name, but also the authority to speak in his name. “In the name of Jesus Christ, and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”

Like the man born lame, sitting at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, we were once lame in regard to our own salvation. We were born in sin and “brought forth in iniquity” as Psalm 51:5 reminds us, with no silver or gold that could buy the grace and mercy of God. But that is we have been given, free of price, through the holy name of Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that we are able to stand and confess that God has used our sin and weakness to reveal the holiness of his name. We have been marked and claimed by the name of Jesus Christ, and it is only in His name that we have life!

– Pastor Steven E. King

New Evangelism Study

Sola Publishing has just released a new Bible Study on the topic of Evangelism and Discipleship:

Speaking for Christ: Everyday Evangelism
through the Promise of Forgiveness

by Rev. Hugh Brewer and the Rev. Dr. Steven E. King

“Speaking for Christ” is a Bible study on evangelism and what it means to share the message of Jesus in our everyday life. It approaches the subject by focusing on how God uses us to be his ambassadors and drives to the heart of the reason Jesus came into the world, to reconcile the world to himself through the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins.

The study spotlights Scripture passages related to what Lutherans call “The Office of the Keys” — that is, the power Jesus gave his disciples to announce the forgiveness of sins in his name. This is a calling and authority Christ has granted to the whole church and it is foundational to the saving message of the Gospel itself.

To order the study, go to the Sola Publishing site at this link:

https://www.solapublishing.com/speaking-for-christ–participant_E-5050

The Covetous Will

“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:14-15)

As people begin to study and become more familiar with the Holy Scriptures, inevitably, they are confronted with the question of the human will. Most people start with an assumption of human freedom, and the God-given ability to do as we desire. Then they come across a passage like the one above, where the Apostle Paul confesses that he is unable to do what he wants. By this, he is referring to his inability to do what is right. Paul wants to avoid sin and obey the will of God, but finds that he is unable. He understands the he is in bondage to sin and cannot free himself.

Likewise, I’ve noticed when people begin to mature in their theology and learn more about Martin Luther, they are often surprised to hear that Luther was not a big fan of the idea of human free will. Early in his career, Luther wrote that “free-will after the fall exists in name only.”* Luther later went on to write what many consider to be his greatest book: “On the Bondage of the Will.” Luther did not believe that humans have a free will.

But here I must be clear. Luther did believe that human beings have a will. All human beings have desires — things that we “will” or want to happen. Luther also acknowledged that human beings have a limited ability to choose. Indeed, we face numerous choices every day, from the moment we wake up. “What slippers shall I put on? What shall I have for breakfast.” Luther did not deny our ability to make such choices. What he did call into question is how “free” those choices really are. One cannot “choose” to eat Corn Flakes for breakfast, if all you have are Cheerios.

As Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate”(Romans 7:15). Paul goes on in the next verses to confess, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

Paul recognized the will and desire to do what is right, but he also confessed that he was not able to act upon that choice. His sin kept him bound. He could not free himself.

Most of us are not so honest. We like to think that we are free to do as we please. Many Christians speak of free will as the “gift” of God — as if from the beginning, God wanted human beings to be able to choose and decide between good and evil for ourselves. But those who know Scripture know that God expressly forbid Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God did not want human beings to choose for themselves; he wanted humans to trust and obey the one true God.

If human beings ended up with a will that is free from God, it was not because God gave it to them as a gift, it was because they stole that ability to decide for themselves, against the wishes of God.

There is a very common word in Scripture to describe the human act of choosing apart from, or over against, God. The Bible calls that Sin. There is also a biblical word to describe the human will and desire to have what God does not want us to have. That word is Coveting.

God begins the Ten Commandments with the call to “have no other gods” before him. The first and most important commandment is to let God be God — to trust and obey God as the Lord of our lives. As Jesus showed us in his own perfect obedience, the prayer of the faithful to our Father is this: “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matthew 26:39). All the other commandments flow from this one.

Ironically, by the time we reach the end on the Ten Commandments, we return again to the subject of the human will. When God says, “you shall not covet,” he is saying that we should not desire or wish to have what does not belong to us. We are not to yearn for things we have no right to. This includes not wanting to have what belongs to God alone.

Adam and Eve fell to the temptation that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good Evil – if they gave in to the temptation of being able to choose for themselves – they would “become like God” (Genesis 3:5). That was the lie that the snake told them, and it is the lie we have been telling ourselves ever since.  In our effort to become the god of our own lives, we have raised up “coveting” as the highest virtue, and have given it the grand and glorious title of “free will.” We tell ourselves that the ability to pursue our personal desires is the highest good – a human right that not even the Lord himself would dare get in the way of.

But Scripture says this desire is just another example of sin. To covet the freedom that belongs to God alone is the very root of sin and the power that keeps us bound. As Paul confessed on behalf of us all:

“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25)

Paul recognized that his hope did not rest in the freedom of his human will, but in the promise of Christ. Only in him are we saved from the sin of what we covet for ourselves, and brought to the faith that is able to say, “Not my will, but your will be done.”

— Pastor Steven E. King

*from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations, 1518 AD

Competitive Gospel

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (Philippians 1:15-18)

I have often wondered about the verses above. I wonder exactly what it was that Paul was referring to, and why he would apparently affirm those who preach the gospel with ulterior motives? Paul always did have detractors. He spoke often of those who contradicted the message of grace in Christ, seeking to reinstitute the law as the basis for Christian faith. There was a sort of rivalry between him and those who preached “a different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4), and Paul often warned of those who would “nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21) by encouraging believers to trust in their own righteousness. Paul was an evangelist, first and foremost, and for him the gospel itself was at stake in these matters.

Throughout my ministry, I have had a particular interest in evangelism. Like Paul, it has been at the forefront of how I understand the calling God has placed on my life. I served as a mission developer in my own congregation, and over the years, I have helped to support a number of new church plants. I have come to recognize that God has given me a heart and passion for making known the gospel.

But I have to say, I never really questioned whether there was any hidden motive underlying my interest in evangelism — beyond wanting to serve as a faithful follower and ambassador for Christ.

So when I read what Paul writes about those who “preach Christ from envy and rivalry,” it gives me pause. I wonder if there is not a bit of my own competitive human nature that has driven this aspect of my ministry, and the desire I have to do evangelism. Knowing the way I am, I realize it is not simply that I want to preach the gospel, but that I want to do it “right.” That is to say, I want to proclaim Christ in a way that has biblical and theological integrity.

Unfortunately, I have too often been on the receiving end of badly done evangelism. Whether it be those who used a carrot or a stick, I have often experienced the “sales pitch” of people who have tried to sell me Jesus. I never wanted to do that to others. I never wanted to give in to the temptation of preaching a human-centered view of faith, as if trust in Christ were a human work by which human beings save themselves. I believe that the gospel is something that comes from outside of ourselves — something that we do not control — wherein the Holy Spirit uses God’s Word to lay hold of our hearts. “By grace you have been saved through faith,and this is not your own doing…” (Ephesians 2:8). That verse has always been at the center of how I understand the gospel.

But I must admit, there have been times that I have felt that those with a more synergistic view of salvation have a much easier job. There are many evangelists who unabashedly teach that salvation is in our human hands, and that “being saved” is the result of our own human work or decision. Apparently, that strategy “works.” All around me I see people who try to make the gospel more attractive in ways that appeal to human will and desire, who often seem to be much more “effective” in their evangelism.

I can’t help but think that some of my own evangelistic fervor has been to prove that evangelism could be done in a way that focuses on Christ alone, and his gracious act of salvation, rather than giving credit for our salvation to our human cooperation or acceptance. Does this mean that my preaching the gospel has been out of envy and rivalry, and not of good will — as Paul said of his opponents? Or does it mean that I simply want Christ proclaimed, as clearly and purely as I can?

Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter. As Paul said, the important thing is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). Maybe this is where the gospel speaks to us as the evangelists, as Christ releases us from our bondage to motives and rivalries, and works in us despite our weaknesses and failings. He gives us the opportunity to serve in his name, regardless of our covetous and competitive nature, and assures us that even what we may do for the wrong reasons, he is able to use for his glory. Knowing in the end that “it is not about me but all about him,” was the message of Christ from the beginning. Though we may be people who fall short in motive and intention, the promise is that Christ is at work in us nevertheless. And in that, I rejoice

– Pastor Steven E. King

Personal Witness

Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:45-49)

When I think of God’s Commandment that we should not bear false witness against our neighbor, I can’t help but think about what kind of witness we should give to our neighbors. If “bearing false witness” means to misrepresent, lie, and deceive, then bearing true witness means to give honest testimony to what we have seen, heard, and experienced.

This kind of witness is important both in a courtroom and in our everyday dealings with other people. But it is even more important when it comes to our Christian calling to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5) by bearing witness to Christ. Bearing truthful witness is not only required under the Law, it is critical to the ministry of the Gospel.

There is a way of proclaiming the Gospel in the abstract, apart from subjective experience. Like the evangelists of Scripture, it is good and right to speak to others of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his death and resurrection. In the victory of the cross, Christ has overcome sin, death, and the power of the devil.

As Christians, we believe that this is a message of objective truth in Christ, and we have been called to speak this good news on his behalf, proclaiming: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) This is most certainly true.

But there is also a way of speaking the Gospel that is much more personal and subjective. Not only are we called to tell the good news of what Christ has done for the world, we are also called to bear witness to what Christ has done for us in particular.

For example, when Martin Luther spoke of the promise of God that we have in Christ, he liked to emphasize the words “for me” and “for you.” Like when we come to the altar in Holy Communion, Luther emphasized that the promise in the Sacrament is not simply that Christ is present in bread and wine, but that the body and blood of Christ is given for you, and his forgiveness is for you in particular. This provides a target for the promise, by placing a bulls-eye on us, to help us see that his Word of grace and mercy is aimed at our hearts.

When I think of why our personal Christian witness is so important to evangelism, it is for this same reason. One of the best ways to share our faith with others is simply to talk about how we have experienced the power of God at work in our own lives. These moments of faith may not be earth-shattering events, or radical transformations in our way of life, but may be simple instances where God was with us to comfort or encourage us. Some of the best stories we can tell of Jesus are of times when we were weak or when circumstances were beyond our control, and we learned we had to trust in God alone. As the Apostle Paul once said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

By being honest about the struggles we experience and our daily need for God, we bear witness to what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We become examples of a faith that does not rest in ourselves, but in Christ alone. We have the privilege of letting others know that Jesus is not just the Savior; he is our Savior.

This again shows the sacramental nature of our daily discipleship. God uses us as his “means of grace” by demonstrating that the real power of faith belongs to God, and not to us as human beings. By being honest about our struggles, doubts, and weaknesses, we can give our neighbors hope and faith that God is at work in their lives as well. Others will see in us that “no temptation has overtaken us that is not common to all people, but God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In making us his witnesses, God reveals his Gospel incarnate in us. We become the instrument and the example of his light shining in the darkness. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).  It is to Him that we bear witness.

– Pastor Steven E. King

Respecting the Stewardship of Others

All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, directly after the day of Pentecost, we are given a glimpse of the first days of the early Church, and how the first fledgling congregation “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We also hear of how they loved and cared for one another in faith, by sharing what they had and providing for those who were in need.

Scripture says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Some interpreters have suggested that this verse is evidence our Lord had taught his disciples to practice and enforce an economic system that requires the equal distribution of wealth. Some argue that this kind of system is necessary in our world for us to have a true and just society. Others argue that since all we have belongs to God, there should not even be such things as individual ownership or property, and that all resources must be made free and available to everyone.  Creating such a fair and equitable system, they imagine, would usher in the very kingdom of God on earth.

Yet, the truth is, there have always been differences among people, in wealth, in resources, in riches – and in less tangible things as well like personal skills, talents, and natural abilities. This is the case among those outside the Church as well as among believers. We see this reality illustrated in the Parable of the Talents, where Jesus describes a Master who entrusts differing amounts to each of his servants. “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one — to each according to his ability” (Matthew 15:15). Even in the comparable Parable of the Minas, in Luke 19, where the Master gave each servant the same amount, the resulting return on the Master’s investment was different in every case.

Nowhere in these stories does the Master tell the servants, “Since all the resources belong to me, the return is irrelevant.” Nor does the Master allow one steward to lay claim to the resources he entrusted to another, as if a servant had the right to steal from their fellow servants or were entitled to an equal share. No, the Master held each of his servants accountable for their own individual stewardship, and responsible for the way they used the resources of the Master to engage in his business.

But are we not called as disciples – commanded even – to care for our neighbors in love? Is not generosity and concern for the well-being of others part of what it means to be a steward of God? Indeed it is. As Jesus once asked his disciples:

“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes (Luke 12:41-43).  

Being a follower of Jesus means we trust in God enough to be generous and merciful. We have the promise from our Lord, himself, who said:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

As disciples, we are called to be faithful and wise stewards of all that God has given us. But our individual stewardship is not measured according to what has been entrusted to others, it is according to what we have been given that each of us are accountable.

Imagine several cashiers working in the same store, side-by-side, in a row of registers. At the end of a shift, each cashier knows that they are responsible for the cash in their drawer, any checks written or coupons they have redeemed for their customers, in addition to the record of transactions that were made electronically. During the shift, if one cashier were to secretly remove $100 from a co-worker’s register and put it in her own drawer, could she make the argument that this is not stealing? None of the money belongs to the cashiers anyway; it all belongs to the store. However, she would know full well that other cashier will come up short at the end of the night, and that other cashier will be accountable for the missing money.

The Commandment, “Thou shall not steal” is not made irrelevant by the fact that all things belong to God. Nor can the biblical example of the early Church caring for each other’s needs be used as a pretext for stealing from one steward to benefit another – whether it be by force, by deceit, or by political-economic systems.

Jesus did not come into the world to set up a new societal system for the distribution of goods and services. He did not come to create a system of economic equity or any other kind of “kingdom of this world.” He came into the world to give his life for us, that our hearts would be grasped by his love, so that in faith we would show that same love to others.

Christ has called us as his disciples, and has given us many and varied gifts — not for the sake of making us equal, but for the sake of doing his work in the world. We are each entrusted with different amounts the Master’s resources, not to make things “fair”for us, but engage in the Master’s business of showing mercy, grace, and love in his name — for his sake.

In the Gospel of John, when Jesus came to the family home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, in thanks for all the Lord had done for them, Mary of Bethany came forward to anoint Jesus with a jar of expensive perfumed oil, and wipe his feet with her hair. Judas spoke out against what he considered to be an act of economic injustice, saying,“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5).  Scripture tells us, “He said this, not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief…” (12:6).

Jesus responded to the accusation of Judas by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8). Jesus lets us know that in our lives we will have unending opportunities to show love to those who are poor, just as the early Church showed love to one another by “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). This, indeed, is what it means to love our neighbor.

But we do it, not for the sake of equity — for we know that in this world things will never be equal, and the poor we will always have with us. We do it, not for the sake of some abstract ideal or system of economic justice; we do it for the sake of Christ himself. We demonstrate his love to the least of his brothers and sisters, because in caring and serving and loving our neighbors, we are doing it for Him.

– Pastor Steven E. King

A Profound Mystery

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)

In the Book of Ephesians, as Paul is talking about what faith means for our human relationships, and how God calls husband and wife to love and respect one another, it’s as if he can’t keep himself limited to the topic at hand. Like the good preacher he is, he finds it necessary to point back to Christ and what Christ has done for us.  Regarding the ordinary and everyday relationship experienced by husbands and wives throughout the world, he says:  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (v. 5:32).

Lest we think that marriage is just one of those things that people do – some kind of quaint, old-fashioned tradition from times gone by, that has no meaning for our modern world – Paul says that it is something that teaches us about the very nature of our relationship with God.

On a surface level, we can recognize that both marriage and faith are relationships of love. Just as our spouse is a person for whom we have affection, we know that our love for God is based on his love for us (1 John 4:19). In a similar way, we know that the love a mother and father have for their children is a reflection of the love that our Father in heaven has for us. But I think Paul is saying more than this.

The “profound mystery” of which he speaks is more than just a metaphorical comparison or simile – i.e. this is like that. Paul is speaking here of something that strikes to the heart of what it means to call Christ our Savior. It is a deeper reference to trust and dependence, and what it means to know that our life and well-being rests in the hands of another.

One of my favorite images in all of Scripture is when Jesus speaks of himself as the “stronger man” who rescues us from the powers of sin, death, and the devil.  In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus was accused of casting out demons in the name of the devil, Jesus pointed out how foolish that accusation was. He says:

“If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.” (Mark 3:26-27)

Satan is the strong man who holds us prisoner in his dungeon. Far from being on Satan’s side, Jesus shows that He is the one who is stronger than Satan! Jesus has the power to bind the strong man and rescue us from the devil. Jesus breaks in and plunders hell itself, to bring us back to God.  Truly, “Nothing in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:39).

As a disciple of Christ, who trusts and believes in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I know that I cannot save myself. I need someone to break in from the outside, not only just to save me from the devil – but frankly, to save me from myself. Sometimes I fancy myself as the “strong man;” I cling and hold on to my goods, thinking that somehow I can save myself. But then Christ comes, and proves me wrong.

The irony I have found is that it is most often my wife who shows me this. In my vocation as a husband or a father – or simply as a sinner trying to live my life in faith – I depend upon someone from outside myself to intervene.  I need someone, beyond myself, who sees me bound in sin and does not turn away. I need someone who has the strength and the love and the courage to speak the Word of Christ to me in my weakness. I need someone who is not afraid to speak God’s grace and forgiveness into my captivity, so that Christ himself would set me free.

As Christians, I believe that is the very thing we are all called to do for one another. But no where is this more true than in the relationship between husband and wife.

Martin Luther once said of his own experience as a husband to his wife Katie, “A Christian is supposed to love his neighbor, and since his wife is his nearest neighbor, she should be his deepest love.” (Of course, the same could be said of wife to husband.)

But the love of which Luther spoke in these words is more than a simple attraction of male to female. It is even more than the affection we feel toward one with which we are in love. Like Paul, the love of which Luther speaks is the greater love of God that can only come from outside of ourselves. It is a love spoken in real-life words of grace and mercy in Christ that are lived out within a life of weakness and genuine need.

So when I think about why it is that God created such a thing as marriage, I don’t see it as just a human tradition or a out-dated contract between two people in this world. I see marriage as a way that God has built the gospel itself into who we are.

I am blessed to say, both a spirit of confession and as a matter of dependence and trust, it is for this reason that I left my father and mother and now hold fast to my wife. For I know that tied up within this marital bond is the very means of grace by which I am able to live from day to day. My wife is a channel of divine love to me, and the one in whom I most clearly see the face of God. Indeed, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”

– Pastor Steven E. King

God’s Purview

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”  (Deuteronomy 32:39)

Throughout the Scriptures we hear directly from God claims that would not be true if spoken by any other being. In the face of all god-like pretenders, the Lord Almighty asserts divine sovereignty – even over life and death itself. Scripture maintains a monotheistic view of one God who is above all. In fact, the very word “holy” means “set apart.”

When it comes to the Commandments, people often seem to forget this radical “otherness” of God. We talk as if we think God is (or ought to be) subject to the same standards and limitations that we are. We point out places in the Bible where God does not seem to follow his own rules, and are troubled when God does things that he told us not to do.

But that is precisely the point.  Strictly speaking, good and evil, right and wrong — these are standards given to us for how we are to live as God’s creatures. They are not laws to which God is subject.

We all know that God is able to do things that human beings cannot (Matthew 19:6); but what we often forget is that God may do things that we may not.  That is to say, God, as Ruler of the Universe, may legitimately do things that we, as limited finite creatures, are not allowed to do. In fact, the very reason that we are not allowed to do some things, is because those things are functions reserved for God alone.

Take killing for example. God has made it a commandment that, “You shall not kill.” Yet, in Scripture we see God killing as a matter of course (in examples such as the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, the Egyptians at the Red Sea, etc.). It seems like a contradiction, with God breaking his own rules.  But God is not subject to the rules he made for us; we — and the rules — are subject to God.

To put it crudely, what if the reason we, as human beings, are not allowed to kill each other, is because killing is God’s job. The reason we may not kill or take life is because life and death are under God’s purview alone. To take such matters into our own hands is to put ourselves in the place of God — the kind of idolatry that is the very foundation of sin itself (Genesis 3:5).

This is why, in the verse above, God says: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39)

And lest we, like the heretic Marcion, think this is just the “Old Testament God of Wrath” talking, we should pay attention to what the New Testament says about Christ. The Apostle Paul writes:

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:8-9)

The very center of the Gospel — the death and resurrection of Christ himself — is founded on the logic of there being One God to whom all things belong, even our own life and death.

So what does all this have to do with Christian discipleship?

It shows that being a follower of Christ is more than just being the adherent of some moral code. Christ is not simply a wise guru whose advice we heed in a personal effort to live a more spiritual or religious life. Christ is not simply an ethical teacher who has found enlightenment and has now become a motivational speaker or life-coach to teach us his “best practices.”

Jesus Christ is Lord of the Living and the Dead. He himself is the end goal and basis of our faith. To be a disciple of Jesus is not simply to follow the example of a great teacher, but rather, to be captured by his lordship as the Ruler of Heaven and Earth, and to be transformed by his sovereign will at work in us.

When it comes to discipleship — whether it be in regard to the Ten Commandments, or “the Law” in general – God’s purpose is not to lay out a path by which we navigate our way through right and wrong to reach spiritual perfection.  Faith is simple obedience to our Master, for his sake alone, brought about by the Holy Spirit of God. It is Christ’s own work in us, exercised in his sovereign lordship over life and death, which puts to death the sinner in us in order to raise us up to new life. This is something only God can do.

As Luther observed: “He has done all this in order that I might be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns for all eternity. This is most certainly true!”

– Pastor Steven E. King

Bearers of the Word

“As for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”  (2 Timothy 3:14-15)

From the very first pages of Scripture, we hear of a God who brings order from chaos and establishes the universe according to his good pleasure. By his powerful Word, God spoke the heavens and the earth into existence – “all that is seen and unseen.” And in the midst of this created order, God formed and placed us into each other’s lives as human beings.

Our God is not only the Creator of things, but the Creator of our lives and relationships. From the start God made it clear that “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18).  Scripture shows us that we were never meant to be solitary creatures. We were created to be in relationship with our Lord and with one another.

Jesus not only affirmed this as God’s intention for humankind, he also reminded us that God had provided for there to be a perpetual renewal of these relationships down through the generations. He said:

“From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Mark 10:6-8)

According to Jesus, God himself created marriage as the first and primary relationship from which others would flow. As husbands and wives grow to become fathers and mothers, this primary human relationship serve as the foundation for many others. Around the family, God builds friendships, neighborhoods, communities, and nations. We care for each other through the web of relationships we have with one another.

It was in this sense that Martin Luther often spoke of marriage as an “estate” established by God. That is to say, Luther talked about parenthood as a “standing” or “office” that God has set up for the service of the neighbor. This notion of family fits well with Luther’s understanding of how God uses his people as instruments and channels of his divine love. For Luther, an estate or standing is more than just a title or position; it is a function and activity in which we engage for the sake of others.

Just as some Christians are called to serve in the office of ministry in Word and Sacrament, being a father and mother is another form of ministry by which the Word of God is communicated from one generation to another. Luther recognized that this was one of the reasons God places us in families in the first place, so that we would have others close at hand to speak God’s Word to us. He wrote:

“Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. For whoever teaches the gospel to another is truly his apostle and bishop.” (Luther’s Works, Vol. 45, on “The Estate of Marriage”)

This is what makes the Fourth Commandment and the role of mother and father so important. On this familial relationship depends the continued propagation of God’s Word through time. Just as Luther’s explanation of the Sabbath Commandment rested in our human need for God’s Word and time set aside “to hear and learn it”—so also, the Commandment to “honor our father and mother” reminds us of the importance of the ones from whom we hear and learn it.

Our earthly fathers and mothers are bearers of God Word. Not only are parents communicate values and moral character as their children grow as human beings, parents are the primary teachers in faith development. Beyond respect and obedience in our life under the law, parents serve an even deeper evangelical role in communicating the grace and forgiveness of God in Christ.

In honoring father and mother, we learn the nature of faith in Christ. We remember the people who were the first to pick us up when we fell, the first who tended to our wounds, and first who held us in their arms. But it is not simply that parents are patterns or reflections of God’s grace, they are ones through whom God actually shows us his love and mercy.

God continues and multiplies lesson through the people with whom we share all our relationships. In honoring our father and mother, we also honor grandparents, friends, neighbors, teachers, pastors, and “others in authority” who protect us and provide for our daily needs. In return, we are given by God a host of other whom the opportunity to serve. We are given the opportunity to live as Christ’s disciples, with a world full of people to help and defend, to encourage and support, and to hear and forgive.

The Fourth Commandment recognizes that human beings never meant to be alone. It creates a confluence of relationships that lift us up in small and large ways. God knows we can’t make it on our own, so he places in our lives people on whom we can depend on and provide his help and strength. We are able to “continue in what we have learned and believed” because we honor and remember the ones “from whom we learned it” and how from childhood we have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which were able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

– Pastor Steven E. King