All posts by Steven 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

Work and Rest

Jesus said: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  (John 9:4-5)

In the sacristy of the church I served, there was a whole drawer of old, used candles. After being on the altar for a season, it seemed like all old candles would somehow end up in this particular drawer. I never knew why. Perhaps it was a member of the altar guild, the church custodian, or an usher readying the sanctuary for worship who changed out the candles. Most people knew where the new ones were stored for when they were needed.

But it was the drawer of old candles that always intrigued me. Like a solemn funerary vault that held the remains of the faithful dead, candles that had burned on the altar would be laid to rest in that drawer after fulfilling their purpose. It was as if people were reluctant to throw away something that had been made holy by its use in worship. Or maybe it was just an old habit that people absent-mindedly followed because it had always been done that way.

In that drawer, many of the old candles were mere nubs, burned down to about an inch or so of wax remaining. But too often, there were candles in the drawer that were still of a decent length, four or five inches long. I wondered who felt the need to retire a half-burned candle before its time. It seemed to me like such a waste – poor stewardship, I would probably call it.

So when the occasion presented itself, I would go to that drawer to get those old candles and put them to use. Usually, it was because I wanted candles for an object lesson in teaching. Or it might be for a special evening service, where I would put out clusters of candles of various heights. In one way or another, the candles were not wasted.

As I reflect on Discipleship and what it means to live out our faith in everyday lives, giving ourselves in service to our Lord, I am reminded of what candles are meant for, and what they represent. When Jesus tells his disciples, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work,” I remember that we, like the old candles in that drawer, will someday be put to rest. This is the “promised rest” of which the Scriptures speak. Following a life well lived in faith, God has prepared for each one of us a final Sabbath, where we, like Lazarus, rest in the bosom of our ancestors.

But until that day, we must do the work of him who sent Jesus. For not only is Christ “The Light of the World” (Jn. 9:5), but he has sent us out as his disciples to be lights to the world ourselves:

 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

It is my hope, prayer, and intention as a disciple of Christ, that I would be one of those candles that is burned down to a nub by the time I am put in that drawer. I want to have given what I have and what I am in the Lord’s service, so that when there is nothing left to give, I will have been “used up” by God.

I realize to some, this may not seem like a comforting image, or one to be desired. Many people don’t like to think of death as an end, but prefer to talk about it as simply a “transition” from one active state to another. But speaking for myself, I look forward to the Sabbath that God has prepared at the end of all things. To rest in peace, to rest in the Lord, is the consummation of a life of faithful service. God himself rested of his labors after the work of his creation.

This gives me hope because I know that after the Sabbath a new week dawns. In Christ, we are promised a new creation – a Resurrection from the Dead – where we will once again be put to work in his kingdom, where we will be lights surrounding the One Light, in “the city (that) has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23).

Until then, let us burn brightly in this world as his disciples, as God uses us to reveal His light in our lives.  As Scripture says: “There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest…˝ (Hebrews 4:9-11a)

– Pastor Steven E. King

In His Name Alone

If we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 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 4:9-10)

When Peter and John were brought before the Jewish Council to explain the healing of the lame man they had encountered in the Temple (Acts 3-4), they made it clear that it was not by their own power or skill that the man had been healed, but rather, it was the power of Jesus — and in His name alone — that the man was made well.

Peter and John had every opportunity to take credit for themselves. These disciples, who had both followed along with Jesus after his arrest, had  been witnesses to the Lord’s suffering and death. These same two were among the first to run to the tomb in response to the witness of Mary, who told them of the empty tomb. Peter and John were among those who experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and had boldly announced the Good News to people of many nations, when earlier, they hid in silence.  Now, through them, the Holy Spirit was actually working miracles of healing similar to those performed by Jesus himself!

It would have been easy, at that point, for Peter and John to talk about the spiritual progress they had made as disciples. In a very short time, they had advanced from doubt and wonder to certainty and conviction, surpassing the other disciples of lesser faith, who had no such miracles about which to boast.

Yet Peter and John did not boast. The made no claim to progress or power. Instead, they denied that they had accomplished anything. They said that Jesus’ name had done it all. Scripture tells us:

When Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus… To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all. (Acts 3:12-13,16)

In this story, Scripture gives us another example of how Sanctification really happens in our lives as disciples of Christ.  Too often, we like to speak of our discipleship in terms of moral progress and of our efforts to become “better” Christians. The more we accomplish, the more apparent we can be in showing the effects of our ministry, the higher on the “leader’s board” we can get … and by comparison, show how much further ahead of others we are in our discipleship.

Ironically, in the lives of the disciples in Scripture, the opposite is true. It seems the greater the ministry, the further the outreach, and the more miraculous the results – the less credit they took for themselves, and the more they gave to Jesus. They had learned the lesson that discipleship is a not a personal step-ladder to attain spiritual heights, but rather, it is coming to better appreciation for how God alone is the source of our strength and power. Like Peter and John, we are simply the living “means of grace” that God uses to accomplish his purpose to bring glory to His name.

To put this in terms of the Second Commandment, and what it means that we should “not take the name of the Lord our God in vain” – it means that we who bear the name of Christ take no credit for ourselves but give all glory to his name. It means that as people of faith we do not boast of our own power or piety, but bear witness to the name of the One who is at work in us and through us.

As disciples, we confess that “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 3:30). We live our lives in His service, to His glory.  For we know that God’s name is indeed holy in itself and we pray that it may be kept holy among us.

Disciples of One Master

Jesus said:  “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” (Matthew 10:24-25a)

I remember hearing an observation about life in the military and the difference in status between officers and enlisted personnel. It is said, “There is no one more private than a General, and there is no one more general than a Private.”

Perhaps it is the nature of leadership to reflect a pyramid-like structure, with just a few individual leaders at the top and multitude of followers at the bottom. We see this not only in the military, but in corporations, government, and athletic organizations. We often see it in our local congregations and the Church in general. Over the history of Christianity, believers have wrestled with questions of ecclesiology, and how best to structure the institution of the Church for service in the world. Even in the most equitable of systems, there are leaders and there are followers.

But when we speak of Christian Discipleship, it should be obvious who is the Leader and who are the followers. We as individual believers follow our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, together as his disciples. We are the many; he is the One.  As John wrote of the vision that was revealed to him:

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:11-12)

This attribution of unique greatness to Christ as Lord embodies the very spirit of the First Commandment: “I am the Lord your God… You shall have no others gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). The heavenly doxology expresses our praise to the One who is above all. It is in harmony with what Christ himself called the first and greatest commandment: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:37-38).

There is no one more faithful than Christ, and there is no one who sees the need for Christ more than the faithful. This is the confession of a true disciple.

So when our Lord gave us the commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and we seek to carry out that commission, we should be clear about what this means. Christ is not calling us to create a cadre of followers for ourselves, making others our students; but rather, he is calling us to enjoin others to be his followers. In the army of the Lord, we are all the very “general” privates who serve the same unique General.

As one who encourages people live out their faith in relationships of “life-to-life” discipleship, it is important for me to remember and emphasize that “where two or three are gathered” there is only one Master – and that master is not me!  Occasionally, I have heard experienced pastors casually say things like, “I have been discipling (so-and-so) for several years…” — and, of course, I know what they mean. They have been serving as a mentor to help this person in their journey of faith.

Like Philip who was sent by the Spirit to come alongside the eunuch on the Gaza road (Acts 8), it is essential to recognize that Jesus calls us to walk with one another and to help each other understand and live out his promise in our daily lives. But at the same time, it is important for us to keep in mind that – wherever we may find ourselves on that journey — we are all disciples of the same Lord. On that day in Gaza, Philip did not make a disciple for himself, but Christ made his own new disciple of the eunuch through Philip. Philip was merely the earthly means of grace through which God carried out his purpose.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master,” Jesus said. For us, as Christians, Jesus himself is that Teacher and Master.

So as we walk together in faith as Christ’s disciples, we must remind ourselves that we all look to the same Lord. God has brought us together to help each other and lift each other up along the way. We  share lives of mutual discipleship, so that, “whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [we] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

– Pastor Steven E. King

For Us and In Us

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8)

When I teach confirmation students about the Holy Spirit, I always talk about what it means to believe that God himself is at work in our lives –- not only about what God does for us but also about what God does in us.  Both of these are key to what Christian discipleship is about.

Disciples of Jesus are not simply updated versions of the disciples of Moses or the disciples of the Pharisees, who live according to the Law. The disciples of the Law were empowered by their own human spirit –- i.e. by their own righteousness and obedience to the standards set by God and subject to their own human traditions. What empowered their actions was a desire to achieve a higher moral status. They wanted to be able to show that they were better than all others who followed the law.

The way the Law works is a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” proposition. It is a transactional bargain based on the premise that if you follow God’s commandments, God, in turn, will reward you for your obedience. The Law assumes a back-and-forth reciprocity in our relationship with God, where we do our part for God, then God does his part for us.  Just like in John’s baptism of repentance, where each party fulfills their obligations in a divine-human contract, in such a law-based scenario, the Holy Spirit is not present or required.

When it comes to following Jesus, some Christians use the same back-and-forth logic of the Law. Recognizing that God is the one who takes the initiative in grace, they define “discipleship” by simply change the order of the transaction, saying: “Because God has done all this for us, we must now do this for God.” In such a view, works of discipleship and lives of obedience are not required pre-conditions for God’s grace, but they are disguised as necessary “post-conditions” — in a sort of retroactive transaction — as if that is somehow better.  Discipleship is understood to be a “no money down, no payments until January” sort of bargain. But all parties are aware that, eventually, the bill must be paid. The Law is still the Law.

The Gospel, however, is not simply a pay-after-the-fact deal. The good works produced by faith are not our human settlement of delayed payment plan. Rather, the good that is produced by faith is fruit of God’s own Holy Spirit at work in us.  The logic is of the Gospel is not like the transactional logic of the Law that says: “If you do this for God, God will do this for you.” Nor is the Gospel merely the same Law in reverse, that says: “If God does this for you, you must do this for God.”

The Gospel, from start to finish, is the work of God’s Holy Spirit — both for us and in us. Our lives of discipleship are not our payback for God’s prior grace, but are lives in which the very Spirit of God is at work through us. Discipleship is not an act of our own human will in payment of debt; it is the active expression of God’s own will being done by God, in and among us.  We are simply the earthen vessels; the transcendent power belongs to God (2 Corinthians 4:7).

The hammer does not pay back the carpenter by doing its own work, apart from the carpenter’s hand; the hammer is used by the carpenter to do his work. In the same way, we are simply a tool in the Carpenter’s hand. Just as God uses the physical sacraments as his means of grace, God uses our lives as his disciples in a sacramental way to convey his grace and love to others.

When Luther made his famous statement in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has …” — he was not merely speaking of Justification, or simply the grace by which we are saved. Nor was he speaking of some prevenient deposit of grace, for which we must later pay in full. He was speaking of Sanctification, and the power of the Holy Spirit – past, present, and future — by which we are made holy before God. All this is the fruit of God’s own Spirit.

When Jesus promised his disciples on the day he ascended to heaven, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses …” (Acts 1:8), he was not speaking of our work in response to God, he was speaking of the work that God himself will do in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is what I believe. This is the truth I act upon. Regardless of what others may say about their faith, let the Spirit bear witness in me:

“I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort live as a disciple of Jesus or follow him, but the Holy Spirit is living and active in me, so that it is not my will that is done, but the will of him who is at work in me.”

– Pastor Steven E. King

Gain or Loss?

“He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.”  (Luther’s Small Catechism)

Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). In doing so, he showed us that being his follower has a sacrificial quality, not unlike Jesus’ own sacrifice for our sake on the cross. Jesus taught that Christian discipleship is not about gain for the self but more about the loss of the self.

It is popular these days among preachers of the “prosperty gospel” to tell listeners that faith is the means to gain personal success. Such preachers are not above promising earthly “silver and gold” as the reward for faithful discipleship. Of course, if one does not become magically wealthy and successful, they explain it as a sign that the loser’s faith must not be strong or sincere enough.

But as Luther says in the catechism, Jesus’ sacrifice for us had nothing to do with silver and gold, but with his holy and precious blood. Jesus gave his life for us that we might new life. This new life of faith means that the old life in us ends. Through Jesus’ death we die to ourselves, and through his resurrection, we are raised to a different kind of life.  As Paul says in his letter to the Romans,

“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:6, 11)

But what does it mean die to sin, and “be brought to nothing”? It means that as disciples of Christ, we don’t look to ourselves and our own desires as the goal of our personal lives. It means that we don’t measure our lives by selfish success, whether it be in earthly wealth or in spiritual superiority over others. Dying to self is living a life of sacrificial humility, where “we do not think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but think with sober judgment,” remembering that “though many, we are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:3, 5).

Ironically, this is where we find our true value and purpose in Christ. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Humility does not mean we think less of ourselves, but that we think of ourselves less.”

As disciples of Jesus, we do not measure ourselves as better than others, but regard all we have as the tools and resources to serve others. Though we may be simple earthen vessels, jars of clay, we are also the living means of grace by which God’s transcendent power is revealed as he works daily to bring salvation to the world.

Pastor Steven E. King

New Discipleship Series

Disciples of the Cross – Released!

This two-part study approaches discipleship from an intentionally Lutheran theological perspective, emphasizing a sacramental theology of the cross, the distinction of law and gospel, and an understanding of the Christian believer as one who is both saint and sinner.

In Part 1 of this study, “Who We Are,” we look at the question of what it means to be a person of faith. How does what we believe connect to what we do and how we live? How does our relationship with Jesus as our Savior, Lord, and Master, shape the way we think about daily living? How does God’s Word give us direction in our mission and calling as Jesus’ followers sent out into the world?

1: Apprentices of the Master
–   Following Jesus in His Life of the Cross

2: What Are You In This For?
–  Disciples of the Cross vs. Disciples of Glory

3: God is the Potter; We Are the Clay
–  Recognizing How God Does His Work in Us

4: Being Poured Out Before God
–  Daily Dying to Self and Being Raised in Christ

5: What Would a Hammer Pray For?
–  Being Used by God as His Means of Grace 

6: One Race With Many Laps
–  Returning to the Lord as a Pattern for Daily Life

In Part 2 of the study, “What We Do,” we look at the question of what it means to live our lives as people of faith. Structured on the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer, this study looks at the key aspects of our life of faith. Not only will the study examine the basic disciplines we practice as disciples of Christ, it will also show how God uses us to bring his Gospel of grace and forgiveness into the lives of others.

1: Discipline and Disposition
–  Law and Gospel in Our Lives as Followers of Jesus

2: Relationships in Prayer
–  Praying to God and Praying for Our Neighbors

3: Dwelling in the Word
–  Listening to God’s Word and Speaking to Our Neighbors

4: Sharing Each Day Our Daily Bread
–  Depending upon God and Providing for Our Neighbors

5: Our “Come to Jesus” Moments
–  Asking Forgiveness from God & Forgiving Our Neighbors

6: The Struggle Between Death and Life
–  Bearing the Cross and One Another’s Burdens 

What God Has Done

The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” (Psalm 126:3)

In the course of this series of articles emphasizing a “sacramental” view of our lives as disciples, we have drawn upon the basic Law-Gospel distinction that is familiar to many Lutheran Christians. As Lutherans, we know that when we listen to the Word of God, we hear the Law in terms of the expectations and demands that God makes upon us as his creatures. The Law tells us what we must do for God. On the other hand, in the Word of God we also hear the Gospel. This is when we experience what God has done for us — particularly in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the promise of how God uses us as instruments of his Holy Spirit to accomplish his will in us. The Gospel tells us what God has done, and is doing, among us.

Many approaches to Christian discipleship tend to employ a law-based understanding of our lives as disciples, focusing on the works and actions that God expects of us as his followers. For example, various authors on the subject use a list of what they call the “marks of discipleship” or the “disciplines of faith” to describe the things that set us apart as disciples of Christ. Unfortunately, such lists are often presented (or perhaps, falsely perceived) as a list of good works or daily practices that must be mastered to achieve “disciple status.”

If Christian discipleship was simply a list of things we do for God, it would be nearly the same in just about any world religion. But if what makes the Gospel unique is the message of what God has done for us in Christ, then we should expect that what makes Christian discipleship unique also has to do with what God does for us in Christ.  Since we are justified by faith alone in Christ, the marks of discipleship cannot simply be a list of works. There is but one “mark” of a disciple, and that is faith alone.

Of course, there are many ways our faith in Christ expresses itself in our everyday lives and there are many things we “do” because of this faith. But these are the ways God’s own Holy Spirit bears fruit among us; we are simply the earthen vessels through which God does his work.

For example, when Jesus taught his disciples the “Lord’s Prayer” (Lk. 11:1-4, Mt. 6:7-15), he did not give them a list of commandments, but rather, a list of petitions — i.e. things to ask God for. The very fact that we need to ask, shows that these things are not our own accomplishments

In this list of requests he gave us to ask of God, Jesus was not only teaching us about prayer, he was showing us ways in which our faith daily depends upon our Heavenly Father. In the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer, he was showing us what it means to live a life of faithful trust and discipleship through the very things he told us to ask our Lord to accomplish in us.

As faithful disciples of Christ …

We look to him in trust, praying that his name may be hallowed in our lives.

We ask him to rule our lives, making us a part of his kingdom by steadfast faith in his revealed Word.

We pray that God would not only guide us by his will, and put to death all that seeks to serve our own will instead of his.

We trust in God to provide for our daily bread, knowing that he alone can give us what we need, confident that he will provide enough that we may share his gifts with others.

We come to him in confession, asking for God’s forgiveness, knowing that we daily fall short of his expectations. In turn, we forgive one another in his name and by his power, knowing that it is through us that God’s speaks his Word of grace to others.

We trust in God to be with us in times of temptation, struggle and weakness. Knowing that we are weak but he is strong, we rest all our faith and hope in his deliverance from the power of sin, death, and the devil.

These are all ways in which we experience what it means to be a disciple of Christ, and are things that he alone can accomplish in us.

Indeed, the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are things that involve our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength; they are the things that comprise all we do in thought, word, and deed. But these petitions are more than a list of human works to perform. They are first and foremost the things for which we look to God. They are the fruit of God’s own Spirit in us as he leads us and shapes us in lives of discipleship, “that they may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.” (Isaiah 41:20)

Sanctification by Faith

“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  (1 Corinthians 6:11)

There are two related terms in the verse above that refer to the change in standing that is brought about by the Holy Spirit in faith. One is “justification” and the other is “sanctification.” Scripture describes both of these as the work that the Holy Spirit brings about within us through faith in Jesus Christ.

Strictly speaking, the word justified means to be “made right” before God. To say we are justified by faith means that we do not trust in our own righteousness or merit to save us, but rather, we trust in the righteousness of Christ to clothe us. As Scripture says, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28), “for by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20).

For us as Christians (and as Lutherans in particular), the doctrine of justification by faith is at the center of what we believe; it is drilled into our hearts and minds. However, when the subject turns to sanctification, we often don’t seem to be quite as confident in God. While we are willing to give credit to God for justification, people often seem to think that sanctification is something we make happen. I have even heard it claimed in just that way by those who say, “While justification is the result of the work of God in us, sanctification is the result of the work we do for God.” But this simply doesn’t match with the Word of Scripture.

The word sanctified means to be “made holy” before God. In the Bible, this too, is described as the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not we who make ourselves holy; we are made holy only by God’s own Spirit at work in our lives through his Word. As Scripture says: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). When it comes to sanctification, God again is the actor.

In the Small Catechism, when Martin Luther speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit in his explanation to the third article of the Creed, he says this very thing:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith. In the same way, he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and preserves it in unity with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”

As much as Luther was a proponent of Justification by Faith, it is interesting to note that he does not use the word “justification” here, but rather “sanctification.”  (In fact, this section of the catechism is titled “Regarding Sanctification.”)

Clearly, for Luther, justification and sanctification were not two different things, or the result of two different actors. Luther understood them to be two sides of the same divine act of the Holy Spirit, who creates faith by the power of his Word.

Why is this important? Too often when we speak of the Christian life and what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, we make the assumption that discipleship is something we make happen. As if we have moved beyond faith to something more, we treat sanctification as our own endeavor, accomplished through our own individual will. It’s as if we think, “Now that we have that introductory faith-stuff taken care of, we can move on to the real work of making ourselves holy.” As they used to sing the old “gospel” song, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every rung goes higher, higher.”

Real discipleship, however, is not moving beyond Christ, but a continual return to Christ. According to Scripture, we are not called to make ourselves more righteous or more holy, but to abide and remain in Christ (John 8:31). As disciples, we are not working toward some higher religious status with more personal accomplishments under our belt. Rather, the only growth we seek in our life of faith is a better recognition of our need for Jesus and a deeper trust in him.

There will never come a time that we will no longer need to be clothed in the holiness of Christ. It is a deceit of the Evil One that says we can raise ourselves higher than God, and is an urge that by discipline and faith, we must resist. As the risen Jesus said: “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:17-18).

Christ alone is our righteousness as well as our holiness. We are not merely justified by faith but sanctified by faith as well. As disciples of Jesus, we believe and live by his promise: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

– Pastor Steven King