A Message from Pastor Hale

A Message from Pastor Hale

The truth is easily run off the tracks, on one side or the other. One can be loveless, claiming to care about the truth, but heartless and denying the Spirit of truth. But that would be just an excuse. The truth does not hurt others and cause us to sin against our neighbor. The Word of God is not a tool to drive people away from God's all-sufficient grace. The fulfillment of God's law is love.

A popular error today, though, is to make human love more important than the truth of Christ. A person, in the name of love, can accept error, refuse to speak the truth, and ultimately deny Christ. He can be afraid to be rejected by men, and so not want to speak the whole counsel of God. This is hiding the light of Christ under a bushel.

The main part of being a pastor is not knowing everything and being all-wise - it is simply speaking the truth of Scripture without fear of what sinners may say. Like the great prophets and apostles, he should be being willing to suffer for Christ's Word. Scripture tells of men like Stephen (Acts 9) who died for speaking the truth. Many were imprisoned (Jeremiah and St. Paul), but did not back away from proclaiming God's Word. The end of the last book of the Bible warns us against adding to or taking away from God's Word. Both are tempting for sinners, because they do not naturally love God. "I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book" (Rev. 22:18-19). We must continually be on guard against our own loveless flesh.

In our written confessions Martin Luther is positioned as the foremost teacher in our church. Though long dead, and obviously a sinner while on earth, he still teaches us. Lutherans should be learning from Luther, instead of generic protestants on random TV shows or radio programs. Luther teaches the true biblical view of love and the truth. We can hold this position, even though in practice we are never perfected enough to fully carry it out. We seek the Lord's forgiveness for our failings and know that in Baptism we daily die to sin and rise to new life before our God.

"Doctrine must be distinguished from life. Doctrine is heaven, life is earth. In life there is sin, error, uncleanness, and misery, mixed, as the saying goes, 'with vinegar.' Here we should  condone, tolerate, be deceived, trust, hope, and endure all things; here the forgiveness of sins should have complete sway, provided sin and error are not defended. But just as there is no error in doctrine, so there is no need for the forgiveness of sins. Therefore there is no comparison at all between doctrine and life, 'One dot' of doctrine is worth more than 'heaven and earth,' therefore we do not permit the slightest offense against it"

Martin Luther from Luther's Works vol. 27

What does this look like? We must first know what the truth is and what establishes it. Scripture is God's Word. It can be used in many ways, but the Lord through its words establishes all we should believe and know for salvation and Christian living. The bare Word establishes the doctrine of Christ, not words of sinners. Articles of doctrine are not intellectual play toys to juggle so we might impress people. They give us Christ and form the certainty of our faith. The doctrine of Christ tells us what to believe and makes eternal life certain, giving us real hope as we suffer and face death all day long. We should be willing to die for this truth, as Luther was, knowing that Christ will raise us on the Last Day.

Doctrine is not partial, it is all or nothing, since it all comes from Christ. Tolerating "no error" means that doctrine is to be pure, exactly as Scripture presents it. We should not compromise, even if people get offended and threaten to leave our fellowship. We should not be scared of divisions, but they should only be over the truth of God's Word. "For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized'' (1 Cor 11:19). The Word of God is divisive because those who do not love God, do not love His Word, even if they want to claim the name "Christian."

They want to add or take away just a small part to fit their own sinful idea of truth. But doctrine is unified and divine. To deny one part of Christ's teachings puts the forgiveness He died for in danger. All doctrine supports this central article of the faith. That is what makes our church unique: we follow Christ in all His teaching, not just some of it.

But having the true doctrine does not mean we can treat others poorly. We can also deny Christ by being unloving. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn. 13). If there is no love, there is no freedom of the Spirit and then doctrine becomes something we just set on the shelf - not something we live by and which builds our hope on Christ. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Cor. 13). This love none of us has demonstrated fully. But God's true doctrine creates true love, because it enlightens our heart and brings us knowledge of the true God who loves us. How can we not also love in return?

So how do we deal with sinners in the church? Unless they refuse completely to listen and be corrected by God's Word, we should be most patient and loving. We should bend over backwards to put up with their weakness - as they do with ours. We should be willing to lay down our life for one another, as Jesus did for us. This means talking well about others and putting the best construction on what they say and do, even though their failures in the past make that seem foolish. We are to be blind to sin and as innocent as doves, willing to be deceived and misled, all for the sake of love. This rules out behind the scenes gossiping and politicking, trying to sway people against another Christian. We should gladly put up with the weaknesses of others without getting angry at them (hating them) or lashing out. “Whoever says [or thinks], ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire” (Mt. 5:22). We are to trust others and take them at their word – to treat them like Christ, as if they were holy. After all, are not they forgiven of all sins, just like us? How can we do something which seems so foolish? Our certainty is from Christ and His Word and no man or earthly sufferings can take away our eternal inheritance. All true love is rooted in God’s love for us, shown in Christ.

This is easy to state and we should subscribe to this teaching because it is scriptural, and therefore the truth. But to know when to fight and hold one’s ground against the whole world and when to lay down, sacrifice, and be crucified, means we must know what our doctrine is and what is a merely human matter and simply the weakness of believers.

To make this concrete: visitors can have emotional appeals for coming to communion, but our official practice of closed communion is purely about doctrine, what one confesses – not the human side of love at all. It has nothing to with a visitor’s past, family, or friends. It has everything to do with what they believe and confess by their church membership right now. We must stand for the truth in a loving way. If anyone wants to commune, there is a way to do that that does not denigrate the truth of Christ and make the doctrine we confess at our altar together to be no big deal. Closed communion, understood properly, is an honoring of the Lord, who gave us Holy Supper, but also a loving service to the neighbor, though they might not want to hear it.

Thankfully church membership, which shows what we publicly confess to the world, can change for the better. It is not hard to belong to our church, it only requires instruction in God’s Word – something a Christian should not avoid anyway – and the willingness to make our confession their own.

The distinction between love for others and concern for God’s truth is very relevant today. People veer off on one side or the other and lose the meat of Christianity. Jesus was able to do both of these perfectly. And His forgiveness covers His baptized. If we believe and love the Lord’s salvation which has come to us, we will seek to follow Him and be willing to suffer both for the truth and in love to those who need their sins covered daily. Amen.

Rev. Philip W. Hale is a pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Omaha, NE.