Category Archives: Connections Articles

Only God and Savior

To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 1:25)

The word “Amen” appears hundreds of times in throughout the Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments. Some may assume that this word, commonly heard at the end of a prayer, a blessing, or doxology of praise, is simply a religious way to say, “the end.” But the word “Amen” means much more than that.

It is an expression of agreement and assent to something heard or read. We say “Amen” in response to a statement with which we agree. To say “Amen” is to say, “Yes, that’s the way it is!” When we respond “Amen” to someone’s prayer, we are saying “that is my prayer, also.” When we say “Amen” at the end of a blessing, asking for God’s grace and favor to be poured out on his people, “Amen” means “Yes. May it be so.”

Often, in the Gospels, Jesus also uses the word “Amen” to introduce a true saying. I’m sure we are all familiar with Jesus’ expression, “Truly, truly, I say to you …” In Greek, this is literally, “Amen, amen, I say to you …”  In this sense, to say “Amen” is to affirm that a statement is real and true, representing the way things really are. It is a confession of faith, bearing witness to what we believe in our hearts.

For example, in the introductory quote above from the end of the Book of Jude, the Apostle speaks of Christ as the only God and Savior, to whom he ascribes “glory, majesty, dominion, and authority” for all eternity. To this, he adds his own “Amen” as a way of bearing witness that in his heart he believes that “this is most certainly true.” But for we, the readers, it is also the opportunity for us to agree to the Apostles’ witness, saying, “Yes! This is what I believe as well!”

Speaking for myself, I am not ashamed to say “Amen” to the Apostles’ words, and let people know that this is what I believe. I acknowledge that Jesus Christ — true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary — is my Lord.  I agree with what is written in the Scriptures, 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).

But I recognize that not everyone would agree such a stament. There are other faiths and other confessions in the world that would speak nothing of Christ as Lord and Savior. There are even those among our own religious tradition who regularly mouth the word “amen” but don’t really agree. They may be willing to affirm the words, but don’t believe the Word is true. As Christ himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Over the years, among people of the Church, I regret to say that I have encountered many who are not quite willing to admit that Jesus is their only Lord and Savior. To be clear, I’m not talking about atheists or agnostics, from whom one might expect doubt and hesitancy. I’m talking about people who acknowledge Jesus, know the right words to say about him, but don’t really believe there is “salvation in no one else” – because they want to preserve a little saving credit for themselves.

Ironically, I have found this especially true among Christians who claim interest in work of Evangelism. Time and time again, I heard people bear witness to salvation in Christ, only to hear them turn to their audience and say “now this is what you must do…” While some will openly speak of salvation as a “50/50” cooperative effort between God and themselves, more often, you will hear it described in the range of a 90/10 split, or even as far as 99/1. They are willing to admit that Jesus deserves most of the credit for their salvation. They may even affirm that Jesus deserves nearly all the credit for their salvation, but that last little bit they reserve for themselves.

A self-described “Evangelical” once summarized this for me when he said, “We thank God for all  that Jesus has done for us, but in the end, it comes down to how you and I respond to God that determines whether or not we are saved.”

There was a time in my life where I would have felt I needed to argue with a statement like that, providing the biblical and theological evidence for why such a statement is wrong. Being an adversarial type, I thought it my duty to set a person like that straight and make sure they came to a “right” theology. As I look back, many are the sermons and Bible studies throughout my ministry where this has been the primary theme, believing it to be what Luther called it, “the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls.”

To be clear, over the years, my conviction and theology have not changed on this point, nor has my faith and confidence in Christ alone as Lord and Savior of the world. But as I have grown older, I have come to see taking credit for one’s own salvation as less as an error that needs to be corrected, and more simply as a confession of where that person’s faith is at in that present moment. Which is to say, when someone now tells me that they are saved because of something they have done, I simply take them at their word. I acknowledge that this is, in fact, what they believe. This is their witness.

My response is no longer to make an argument or try to convince them that they are wrong. My response is simply to bear a witness of my own. My goal is articulate what I trust and believe as clear as I can.  I have come to realize that I cannot control what someone else says or what they believe, but I can certainly give testimony to what I believe. Without speaking for anyone else, I can reserve my “Amen” for what is true of me.

Both now and when I stand before the throne of God on the day of judgment, I desire to take no credit for myself, but rather, to confess that Christ alone is my Savior. I want to say with all assurance that “truly, truly” he has saved and redeemed me through nothing I have done, but purely by his own grace and mercy.

I simply acknowledge that this is how it is for me, and how I pray it always will be. In my heart I know it is true that I can do no other than to stand with Jude and the other saints and proclaim aloud: “To the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.” Only to this can I say “Amen.”

 — Pastor Steven E. King

Doing “Good” Evil

Jesus said: “I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” (Luke 22:34)

Evil is a tricky thing. As Scripture tells us, with the exception of Jesus himself, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). As fallen human beings, we all turn aside and do wrong. Sometimes this may be by mistake; but often we know we are doing wrong when we do it.

On the other hand, to “do evil” carries with it a more serious connotation .  Evil goes beyond accidents and mistakes, or errors made in ignorance.  There is a willfulness to what is evil; it purposeful and deliberate.  Evil knows what it is doing and wants to do it.

However, in many cases — perhaps most cases — evil does not recognize itself as evil. Even as “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14). Evil often comes in the form of what is good, and appears good to those who practice it.

I would even go so far as to say that to truly commit evil deeds, people must first be convinced that what they are doing is right.  Most villains see themselves as the hero of their own story. They tell themselves that what they are doing is for the greater good, or at the very least, that their goal is the right one and the ends justify the means.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, especially in how they treat those with whom they disagree.

After a year of stress and concern over the Covid-19 virus, people are worn out – mentally, physically, and spiritually. Just as we thought we were past the worst, we face renewed reports of Covid variants, threatening a continuation of the pandemic we hoped would be over by now. In speaking to the people I know, whatever their experience or point of view, people want to do what is right.

As people continue to argue for or against wearing face-masks, economic shut-downs,  or whether they are pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine, no one has suggested to me that their goal is to deliberately do what is wrong. To the best they can determine, everyone thinks what they’re doing is right.

That might not be bad if we were able to talk to each other in a civil manner, and show each other respect. But we have deteriorated so far into “my team” vs. “your team” that it is no longer a debate on the choices we can make, we have made it a battle between those who we see as good and those that we see as evil.

Here is where the temptation to genuine Evil rears its ugly head.  No one ever forces other people to act against conscience unless they are convinced that they themselves are right and the others are wrong.  It stops being about deciding what is best ourselves, and becomes about forcing others to submit to what we think is right. It become less about being helpful for the sake of the neighbor, and more about punishing those who disagree with us.

We are seeing the signs of this around us. Whether it be censoring views with which we disagree, and denying the speech of those we consider evil, or whether it is demonizing our opponents and scape-goating those we believe have caused the evil we feel around us, we all consider ourselves in the right.  That is field in which evil plays.

It concerns me to see that some cities, states, and nations have decided to deny basic goods and services to those who will not do what the authorities think is right. It worries me that many would not only trade liberty for security, but would actually force others to do what they think best by taking away their means of making a living. I not sure I want to live in a society where we can’t talk about important subjects, and seek to silence those who disagree. I don’t want to live in a society where we must sift out dissenters, creating a system to divide people into groups for punishment and reward. Such things deeply concern me; I wonder where this all will lead. 

However, as I recognize the evils present in the world, it would be easy to point at the things around me and the external threats we face as those which pose the real danger.  Like everyone else, I could put myself in the place of the “good” and “right” and try to make others do things my way. But I wonder if that is where the true temptation lies. As God said to Cain, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).

How do I master evil in myself? I look to the one who is the Master.  Instead of resting on the certainty of my own “rightness,” I am called to “number myself among the transgressors” as Christ himself did.  If He who was without sin could take on the title of Sinner, how much more should one like me, who has truly earned that name?

If it is true, that to truly commit evil deeds, people must first be convinced that they are doing is right, then I should be willing to admit that this is not true for me. So long as I remember that “there is no one good but God alone” (Mark 10:18), the impulse to see myself as better or more deserving than others is given pause. Ironically, when all is said and done, the certainty that I am not right becomes for me a shield against evil. To refuse to claim for myself the righteous that belongs to Christ alone keeps me protected under his wings.

I will be the first to admit that evil is real and present in the world, as well as in my life. But though I walk through the darkest valley, I do not fear this evil, for God is with me.

— Pastor Steven E. King

Modern Censors

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

I am of the conviction that one of the qualities essential to true discipleship is humility. In this, I am not referring simply to a self-effected posture of lowliness, or the outward appearance of timidity and self-deprecation. Rather, I am talking about a genuine suspicion of our own sinful nature, and a realization that no matter how good and right we think we are, we are subject to the same temptations that face all human beings.

I remember the days not long ago when the most common stereotype of religious people, and the accusation made against them, is that they are too judgmental or “holier than thou.” I used to joke that the only Bible verse that every atheist had memorized was Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” This used to be the go-to verse, used against Christians by those who did not want to have to be called to account for their actions, or question whether what they were doing was wrong.

But the funny thing is, something I’ve noticed lately is that I don’t hear that phrase as much as I once did. People don’t seem to mind judgmentalism as much as they once did. Those who used to say “don’t judge me” seem to have become fewer in number, perhaps because they are often the ones who are now doing the judging.

It seems like judging and condemnation have become a popular sport in our society, especially online, across the internet. Criticizing the words and actions of others, and meting out punishment to those with whom they disagree, is how one comes to feel superior. Offering moral pronouncements and calling into question the character of those with whom they disagree, has become the preoccupation of many who would never think themselves religious. They have become the very people they used to try to avoid.

I remember a board game we had in our house when I was a child, where the goal was to figure out a person’s identity. The game board had pictures of many different people, each of different occupations and appearances (hair color, clothing, expressions, etc.). By asking only yes or no questions, players would try to determine the character who was “it” by a process of elimination.

I can still picture one character on the game board who was labelled “The Censor” (representing a person who judged and disapproved of everything). The Censor was depicted as an old woman in conservative clothing and severe hairstyle, with a stern scowl on her face. It was the stereotypical image of what might be described as a “church lady” – judgmental and self-righteous.

Ironically, in our day and age, if we were honest, “The Censor” would have to be depicted differently. To match our current culture, the Censor would need to be portrayed more like a young, liberal, college-student or “social justice warrior” angrily typing out condemnations on social media. It would be the sign-carrying activists, who like to think of themselves as revolutionary, but are funded and supported by establishment corporations and mainstream media.

The censors of our day are the kind of people who would never think of themselves as moral prudes, but are ever-willing to attack others for the evil of their perceived “-isms.” In an attempt to signal their own secular virtue, they are people oblivious to their own ideological arrogance. They are the purveyors of Cancel Culture — unable to imagine that they could ever be wrong, or that they are guilty of the very things for which they condemn in others.

Or perhaps, that is exactly why they do it. After all, everyone knows that in the new religion of our secular culture, there is no forgiveness and no mercy. The only way to avoid being accused and condemned is to join in the mob accusing and condemning others, displaying your own moral correctness so as to avoid being targeted by others. In this kind of climate, humility puts one in danger.

This is especially true of the most impressionable among us. Sadly, many young people today live in constant fear of being “called out” by the social media mob, requiring them to enforce a strict self-censorship on all their words and actions, terrified of deviating in the slightest from the norms of popular culture, knowing that the mob may crush them at any moment. This constant fear of judgment creates peer pressure on the highest level. Unfortunately, it is the new normal — one that has taken on a kind of “religious” fanaticism.

Which brings me back to where I started. There is something about being a disciple of Jesus Christ that requires humility. In the midst of a world that offers no forgiveness and no mercy, we must not be tempted to do the same. We must recognize the temptation to attack others before they attack us. We must fight the temptation to hurt and destroy the lives of others by indulging our own self-righteous offense. We must be humble enough to see in others the same vulnerabilities that all of us share, and to treat others with the same compassion that we would want to be treated.

To ask God to “lead us not into temptation” is not just an appeal that God would keep us from falling into stereotypical sin and vices. It is also a prayer in which we ask God to keep us from the ideological arrogance that assumes we can do no wrong. It is a prayer that God would not let us fall into the temptation of being overcome by fear and the intimidation of the secular mob. For we have a God who sees us as we are, and yet is still a God who shows us mercy and grace, and loves us as his own.

In a society where people vie to point the finger at others, perhaps the best we can do is follow the example of the One who was not ashamed to be “counted among the transgressors” – the same One that suffered at the accusation of the mob, yet could not be cancelled.

Like our Lord Jesus, may we have the same bravery and courage to not give in to the righteous forces of judgment and the temptation to justify ourselves, but rather to trust in our merciful God and live in the freedom of his grace.

— Pastor Steven E. King

Called to Forgive

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23)

Every once in a while, when people talk about Jesus’ words here about forgiving or withholding forgiveness, they speak as if they think Jesus is offering us two different options in how we might choose to respond to sin. It’s as if they hear Jesus saying, it’s up to us as disciples to evaluate whether someone is worthy of having their sins forgiven or not, and then apply our own judgment in what Jesus is calling us to do. Do we announce God’s grace and mercy in Christ, or do we refuse? Do we think it is up to us to decide?

In these words from the risen Christ, as he sent his disciples out with his peace, Jesus was not placing before us an option. Nor was he telling us to divide the world into different types of sinners or different degrees of sin in considering the message that he wants us to deliver. Rather, he was giving us a promise and a warning as speakers of his Word, showing us the blessing and the consequences of whether or not we, as Jesus’ disciples, carry out his calling.

Jesus is not giving us a choice on whether to forgive or not forgive, according to our scruples and sensibilities. He is calling us to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. He is also warning us of the dire consequences that will come from not heeding his call. To put it another way, Jesus is telling us that he has sent us into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name to a world overcome by darkness and evil — and he wants us to know that if we don’t do it, no one else will.

As I look at the current state of the world in which we live and the diminishment of faith in the public sphere, this is one of the things that troubles me most. The very concept of forgiveness has almost all but disappeared. When one looks at the modern phenomenon of “social justice” mobs piling on condemnation for whatever they deem to be the offense of the day, to the raging Cancel Culture that seeks to take out vengeance and destroy the lives of any who depart from the established and “accepted” narrative, what we are witnessing is a spiritual failure. Our society has lost all sense of the need to forgive.

And don’t be deceived, this is what it is — a need to forgive. Just as in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shows our physical need for daily bread, he follows it up by showing that we have a spiritual need for daily forgiveness. If we know the Scriptures, we know that this is at the heart of what Jesus came into the world to do.  It was his death and resurrection that addressed our need for forgiveness. This is not just the case for Christians who acknowledge themselves as sinners, it is a need shared by all of us as human creatures.

The truth is, without forgiveness, the very structures of society begin to break down. The bond that holds us together is destroyed. This is because all of human society is based on relationships, and our individual relationships with one another overlap in larger and larger networks with many other people. As each cord is broken, the net that holds us together becomes weaker, until there is no bond left and everyone we encounter becomes our enemy.

In giving us his Holy Spirit, Jesus not only entrusts us with the power and authority to forgive in his name, he lets us know what the world will become if we don’t. Scripture tells us, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). If we neglect the calling and command to bear his grace and mercy, our world itself will find the basis for life withheld.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, God has made us his instruments – his living means of grace. Through us, God is in the world, bringing to an end the legacy of sin, death, and the devil that hold all of us bound. In Christ, God is loosing the bonds of sin, one person at a time, by placing in our hands his Key of forgiveness – for he is the only One who truly has the power to set us free.

If you belong to Christ, you have no choice: you are an Ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). You are forgiven; you are set free, that you might make use of that same freeing power in the lives of those around you.  This is the promise of Christ. You have the opportunity to do what the world cannot do, and to give a gift that this world cannot (or will not) give.

Christ has given you the Holy Spirit, with the promise that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” trusting that God will “forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

— Pastor Steven E. King

Emptying Barns

“God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21)

The verse above is the conclusion to Jesus’ parable of the man who built bigger and bigger barns for his wealth, often referred to as the Parable of the Rich Fool. In this parable, a man is blessed with productive land and an abundance of crops. His response to this blessing was not to share with those less fortunate than himself, or to invest the money in a manner that would help his community. Rather, the man decides to pull down his existing barns so that he can build larger ones, so that he would have more room to store up his goods for himself.

Having not been acknowledged (or even mentioned) previously in the story, God suddenly shows up to speak directly to the man. God calls him a “fool” and tells the man that what is required of him is his soul – his whole life – which belongs to God himself. The things that this man thought he possessed were nothing compared to what God himself owned, the claim that God has on all of us as his possession.

Today, as I write my article for this issue, I face the prospect of picking up my household and moving to another part of the country. I realize these days, this is something fairly common for people to do. But it forces me once again to take stock of all the “things” I claim as my own.  I remember back to the first days, when my wife and I were newly married, it seemed as if each time we moved — from seminary to internship, then back to seminary and on to my first call — the moving truck kept getting larger and larger. By the time I moved to my second call, my children were just reaching school-age when we moved into the church’s parsonage. Not long after, we bought own house in the town of Maple Lake, where I served most of my ministry. Again, the amount of “things” continued to grow.

It was not until I shifted from parish ministry to full-time in the publishing ministry, that my wife and I became so-called “empty nesters.” While it was true that the birds had grown and flown off, the nest itself was still filled with many things. Not until the next move did we have our first experience with down-sizing.

It was more difficult than I would have imagined. Though the new house to which we were moving was about the same size as the one we were moving from, the amount of storage space available went from plentiful to minimal. Hard decisions had to be made, and we were not entirely successful in our attempt to divest ourselves excess inventory.

But now, as we prepare to move again, I am surprised to find this process far less difficult. I would like to think it is because I am older and wiser, and am better able to travel light. I would like to think that I have learned the lesson of not building bigger barns, having a greater faith and trust that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). But I am not sure that this is the case.

Rather, I think it has more to do with the experience of loss, and how God shapes us by what he takes away. Like the Vinedresser, pruning the branches of the vine, I have come to understand that God’s blessings are not just in what he gives, but perhaps even more visible in what he removes.

As one who believes in a Savior who “takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), I recognize that there are many other things that God has taken away — hard experiences by which he has shaped me in faith. The things that I once thought of as my own now seem somehow less tangible, compared to the value I find in the unseen things of faith.

After a lifetime of praying, “Lord, give us this day our daily bread,” I have learned not only the value of what God gives, but also the value of what he does not give. Perhaps that is why God does not promise us our yearly bread, our monthly bread, or even our weekly bread. What he promises is daily bread. Having the Lord empty my barns has made me more conscious of my dependence upon him every single day. For that I am grateful.

In teaching the Word, I have often compared the life of faith to a candle that begins tall and slowly burns down as we mature. I have suggested that our prayer as disciples should be that when our time on the earth has ended, there would be nothing left but a nub, for we would have given all we have and all we are for the sake of Christ.

In my own life, what I have found is that this is the only way his light will shine in us. Only by the burning of the candle is the light of our Savior made known to the world. For only by his Light is the darkness of this world overcome.

So I give thanks that God came to me in Christ while I was still a fool, while I was building my barns. I give thanks that he has opened silos and poured out the grain I thought was my own, and instead, has claimed me as His own.

— Pastor Steven E. King

God Willing

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)

In old English, people expressed an action in the future tense by using the word “shall” — as in “It shall rain tomorrow.” The wording indicated an unaccomplished action, or the certainty of something that had yet to happen. People in those days, however, expressed their future desire by using the word “will” — as in “someday, I will become the master of my destiny” (meaning, I want or wish to do so).

Ironically, over the years it became so common to express one’s future intentions in this way that in modern English, the word “will” has all but replaced the word “shall” as the way we express the future tense. People say “I will do this…” or “This will happen…” to indicate things yet to occur.

In a subtle and selfish conceit, we have come to use an expression of our human desire as a way of speaking about the certainty of our future. This tells us a lot about the power and priority we like to ascribe to our individual human will.

But Scripture does not do this. When Scripture speaks of what shapes our future and destiny, it does not give that credit to the human will, but rather to the will of God.

For example, when John describes those who have received Christ and are born again in faith, he says they, “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but the will of God” (John 1:13). This is strikingly different from the way many Christians talk about “receiving Christ” as an act of their own human will. According to Scripture, to be saved by grace through faith is an act of God’s will. As Scripture says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

It is with this understanding of faith that Jesus taught us to pray to the Father: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are not asking to get our own way, but rather that God would have his way with us.  We are not praying that our own wishes and desires should determine our destiny, but that God and his will would rule our destiny just as he rules in heaven. Faith is not an act of the human will; it is the surrendering of our will to God’s. To be a disciple is not to set our own destination, but to simply follow to the destination where our Lord leads us.

This is why the Apostle Paul was able to rejoice when he said:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)

Paul gives thanks for a decision God made – an act that God accomplished in Christ – when he determined to make us his people. Paul gives praise that God’s will has been done for us in Jesus Christ, just as we were chosen in heaven before the foundation of the world.

It may seem quaint to us now, but there was a time when people spoke of what they hoped to do in the future, they would add the phrase “God willing” — to indicate who was really in charge. Such an expression was one that came from faith, acknowledging that the will of God is sovereign, not our own.

It is because I trust that God’s will be done that I pray he keeps each and every one of us in faith and that, God willing, all people would come to know the power and promise of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

— Pastor Steven E. 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

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