Sermons and Papers

Sermon on John 8:31-32

by Pastor Steven Briel

Sermon by Pastor Steven Briel of St. John's Lutheran Church, Maple Grove, MN preached on November 2, 1997 at Zion, Sauk Centre, MN on the occasion of the Long Prairie Circuit worship service commemorating the Reformation and the 150th of the LCMS

Grace to you and peace from Christ our Risen Lord, the Lord of the church. Amen.

John 8:31-32

Consider these words from our risen Lord when He says, "If you continue in My Word, you are really My disciples, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. This is God's Word.

In Jesus Name. Amen.

Without a doubt what we are doing here this afternoon, with all due respect, probably embarrasses some people and actually offends others. All this talk about Martin Luther and being Lutherans, doesn't it seem to fly in the face of that modern spirit of toleration which seems to dominate our thinking today, which likes to believe that all churches are kind of basically the same, and that we should learn to live together in harmony? Our friends in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (E.L.C.A.) have even invented a term for this - they call it "reconciled diversity" which basically means that we must just learn to live together and not let our differences divide us. After all, kid, we learn from each other. It's in that spirit of reconciled diversity, learning to put up with each other and tolerate the opinions of others when they disagree with your own that has led the ELCA to declare full fellowship with several church bodies about whom Martin Luther said about their predecessors that "if one does not believe that the true, natural body and blood of Christ is present with the bread and the wine in the Holy Supper, he can hope for no fellowship with me and that is final." How in heaven's name Lutherans today can declare full fellowship with the United Church of Christ, the Reformed Church in America, when they do not and never have believed in the real Presence of our Lord's body and blood in the Sacrament staggers the mind.

Many would say its quite arrogant though to say that Lutherans have a corner on the truth, and I would think that there may even be a few in our own synod who seem to be embarrassed about being "too Lutheran." Many de-emphasize their Lutheranism by adopting worship styles from fundamentalist religious groups in our country so that many don't even know when they walk into a Lutheran church anymore whether it's Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist or what. Then some of our pastors in the Twin Cities area have even dispensed with wearing stoles and robes anymore. Again, that all a little bit "too Lutheran." I understand that there are some in our synod who dropped the title LUTHERAN from their bulletins and publicity materials. It took our synod in convention in St. Louis the last time to resolve that they should encourage the use of the name LUTHERAN, for pity's sake, so that we don't lose the name entirely. This is incredible.

I don't know about you, but there are many, including myself, who are very concerned that 150 years after her founding, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod may be slowly eroding from within as this American Protestant spirit of toleration and compromise influences more and more of our pastors and our congregations. This spirit of toleration and compromise, I'm sorry, did not characterize Martin Luther. You know as well as I know what he said when he was challenged at Worms to take back what he had preached. He did not say, "We'll talk about it. Let's discuss it. I'm sure we can all learn to live together." He said, "Here I stand, I can do none other. I will not recant one twit of what I have preached and written."

Nor did that kind of spirit of compromise characterize the fathers of the Missouri Synod. Some of your relatives and mine came over from Germany at great expense and risk of life and limb so that they could come to a country for one reason. They wanted to preach and teach God's Word according to their Lutheran doctrine. They brought with them their Catechism, their prayer books and their hymn books. They wanted to be Lutherans. And many of them died their first winter down there in St. Louis, but it was worth the risk. At least they thought so.

Dr. C.F.W. Walther was the first president of the Missouri Synod. He once commented, "When a theologian is asked to give up and make concessions so that there may be peace in the church, but refuses to do so even in a single point of doctrine, such an action looks to human reason like intolerable stubbornness, yes, like downright malice. But God requires of us all," Walther says, "especially the pastors and the preachers, that not only do we love His Word, but that we also tremble at it, that is, that we sincerely dread to deviate from a single letter of God's divine Word and that we dare not add anything to it or take anything from it." And then he concludes, "We are to be ready to shed our blood rather than yield a small letter of God's Word."

Now without a doubt, this kind of stubborn conviction is exactly what our Lord Jesus wants from those of us who claim to be His disciples in the late 20th century. This is why I would like to submit to you that 480 years after Luther's Reformation and 150 years since the founding of our synod, Jesus' MOST FAITHFUL disciples are still to be found among those holding to Luther's doctrine and teaching.

Now why is this? Simply because Lutheran doctrine and teaching is not dreamed up by human beings. Luther's doctrine was grounded firmly in God's Word, and so when we hold firmly to Luther's doctrine, we are at the same time holding firmly to God's own Word. And that's exactly what our Lord Jesus wants from those of us who claim to be His disciples. "If you continue in My Word, you are My disciples."

It is the devil himself, you know, as Martin Luther says in one of our Lutheran Confessions, it is the devil himself who first led Adam and Eve away from God's simple, clear Word, "Do not eat from that tree," which led them to their own speculations and opinions, and of course, you know how that story ended. And it is the devil himself which would cause us to listen to human opinion and superstition rather than God's Word still today.

St. Paul, the blessed Apostle, centuries ago, warned a young pastor that the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine anymore. Instead to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. You know that text.

What about our own synod? When I was a boy, you regularly heard pastors preaching about the truth of God's Word and remaining firm to the Lutheran doctrine. You regularly heard the pastors talking about closed communion, about being faithful to what you learned in your Catechism, but today, too many of our congregations and pastors have become very careless and apathetic about the truth. Many congregations across our synod practice open communion, for example, in which they welcome anybody to come up to the Lord's Table whether they believe in the body and blood of our Lord Jesus or not. Many others practice very unionistic worship services. It happens in the Twin Cities every Thanksgiving where you get all kinds of different people together, no matter what they believe, and worship together. After all, we're all going to the same place, aren't we?

We live in a time in history that has been called the "post-modern age". Post-modernist thinking people say that it means that there is no longer any truth. What is true is what works for me. And if you stand up with conviction and say "This I believe", somebody will look at you and nod and say, "I'm glad you believe that. It sounds like you're really convinced. That's wonderful." But whether they believe it or not is irrelevant.

What about you? What kind of a disciple of the Lord Jesus are you? What about your congregation? Faithful disciples are intolerant of false doctrine. They will not entertain new and innovative theological ideas which contradict the clear Word of God. Jesus says here in this text, "You are My disciples if you CONTINUE." In the Greek - remain right where you are, stay there. If you stay in My Word. Our Lord Jesus does not want theological entrepreneurs in His church, coming up with new and clever ideas to win over new people each week. He wants faithful disciples, ministers, stewards of the Word. Like a well-plastered cistern which lose not a drop, like the old rabbis used to say.

St. Paul urged Timothy, "What you have heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound doctrine. Guard the good deposit which was entrusted to you." That's why our Lord's most faithful disciples will be found among those who hold firmly to Lutheran doctrine. Lutheran doctrine is not innovative. It is not entrepreneurish. It is firmly grounded in God's Word.

That's what Martin Luther claimed when he was challenged at the Diet of Worms to recant his teaching. Remember what he said? "Unless I am convinced by clear Scripture, I will take back nothing!" And then like a broken record in his little Catechism, you may recall, again, and Again, and AGAIN, you can't forget it, how Martin Luther, over and over and over again, asks the question, "Where is this written? Where is this written? Where is this written?" over and over and over and over again, till you get tired of hearing it. For pity's sake, Dr. Luther, it's written right there. He says, "I know that. I just wanted you to know it."

Throughout our 150 years, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod was characterized by this kind of commitment to God's Word. When the founding fathers organized themselves into a synod of congregations back in 1847, they pledged themselves and their congregations to "the acceptance of the Holy Scriptures as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and life, and acceptance of all the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the pure and unadulterated statement and exposition of God's Word." I wonder if and how many would agree with that today? And they committed themselves to renounce all unionism, syncretism - that means where you mix together different beliefs and different synods and different denominations - we reject all syncretism such as pastors serving in mixed congregations, taking part in the services and sacramental rights of mixed congregations or the heterodox - which means those that believe other things. And then they encouraged the EXCLUSIVE use [oh, this is a ball and chain around our necks] the EXCLUSIVE use of doctrinally pure church and school books, agendas, hymnbooks and Catechisms. You go around the synod today and you never know what you're going to get on Sunday sometimes. Many congregations don't even use a hymnbook anymore. Pastors write their own liturgy every Sunday.

We fought a bloody battle for the Bible as it was called back in the 1970s which well nigh split our synod right down the middle. Why? It wasn't for peripheral matters or just because people couldn't get along. It was for the truth of God's Word. Does our synod still have this kind of commitment to the Word of God? What about you? Does your congregation? Does your pastor?

But Jesus' most faithful disciples hold firmly to Lutheran doctrine, not just because they want to hold onto God's Word. They do it for a much more important reason. They do it because they know that only holding to God's Word will they be able to enjoy the wonderful freedom which the Lord Jesus wants us to have. If we do not hold to Jesus' Word, we will become all knotted up and tied up in our own silly superstitions and opinions. We go back to Martin Luther's day and you know what happened there as they gradually lost their hold on God's Word over the centuries. Pretty soon, something rushed in to fill the vacuum - silly superstitions, about praying to relics, praying to the dead, offering up the Lord's Supper as some kind of sacrifice for the sins of the dead, for pity's sake. Martin Luther, raised as a good Roman Catholic Christian did not understand the grace of God. He only knew all these superstitions. He was confused and lost in his guilt and sin. And one day he expressed it this way. He said, "I felt trapped between four walls. Am I a sinner? Yes. Can I stop sinning? No. Must God punish sin. Yes. And will I be damned? Yes." That's what superstition gave to Martin Luther.

C.F.W. Walther, the first president of Missouri Synod ran into similar things back in Germany himself. He got caught up in the pietistic movement which put all kinds of importance on one's emotions and feelings that you are a Christian when you FEEL a certain way. He found himself forcing certain feelings and realizing in his own mind it was all phony-baloney. And he pretty soon started with his doubts and questions too.

And then in Germany, back in the 1800's, the church was infected with a spirit of rationalism and unionism which forced compromise between the truth and false doctrine and many of those poor Lutherans had lost their hold on the truth completely. That's why they came over here.

What about us today? While there's no end to human opinion and speculation and superstition which offer us freedom from our guilty consciences, if we just had the right therapist, then you'll be okay. If you buy the right book, listen to the right tape, then you'll feel good about yourself. After all, isn't that what life is all about? You will never be free unless God Himself sets you free. That's why we are Lutherans, because in the Lutheran church we hear God's liberating Word preached in its beauty and truth and purity. And what is that great Word? It's simply this - that our Lord Jesus Christ, out of pure love for each one of us, came down out of heaven for us men and our salvation. He took into Himself our miserable flesh, and in our flesh, He went to the cross in our place and was damned for us. And because of his suffering, death and resurrection, the Lord of heaven and earthhas declared the entire world, not guilty. We are free. It is that Word of God, spoken through our pastor, "I release you from your debt, I cut the knot," that can set us free.

Martin Luther once said, "When I finally came to understand what God's righteousness was, that the righteousness of God does not mean I must be righteous like God is or He will damn me forever, but when I finally understood that the righteousness of God means that God does the righteous thing for me - because His Son has paid my debt already, He now pardons me from all my guilt and declares me innocent and not guilty." Then Luther says, "I felt like I was born again and the gates of heaven swung wide open for me and I was free." It is once again this precious doctrine of the Gospel which is at the heart and center of our Lutheran doctrine. Every Lutheran child has learned to say as I did as a boy - I believe that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, has redeemed me, this lost, miserable sinful creature, this condemned person. That He has purchased and won me from all my sins, from death and from the power of the devil, that I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. And Luther concludes that beautiful section of the Catechism, not with the words "this may be true" or "let's talk about it and see if you have another opinion that's as comfortable as this one" or "this is probably true". But he says, "This is most certainly true." Where is this written? God has said it. This beautiful Word of forgiveness, of course, is affirmed to us again and again in the Holy Sacraments - in Baptism where we are taught that God, even for tiny infants, pronounces them free from their sins and sets them aside as His own children and receives them into the kingdom. What shall we say about all those sectarian churches out there who refuse to baptize babies because they can't make a commitment yet to God. Or what about the Holy Supper where our Lord Jesus, we believe, comes to us week after week and offers to us His own flesh and blood in the bread and the wine, and puts His body in this mouth which has perhaps sworn at somebody in traffic, yell at my wife or children, or told a lie. And He puts His body in this mouth and says, "I forgive you, I wipe out your debt, you are mine." What shall we say, then, about those churches who tell us that the Lord's Supper is only symbolic, meal of remembrance or of memory of some kind? No wonder that Jesus' disciples hold firmly to the Word of their Risen Lord without any compromise. The stakes are simply too high to play loose and free with such things.

How best then should we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation? How best then should we celebrate the 150th anniversary of our synod? Well, I don't think the best way to celebrate it is simply to sit back and reminisce romantically about how it was in the old days. You can do that, but that's not the best way to celebrate it. The best way to celebrate it, I think, is by recommitting ourselves, one by one, to the truth of God's Word as we learned it in the Lutheran Catechism, and by giving more attention, personally and in our congregations, and with our families, to thorough catechesis or instruction in God's Word as we confess it in Luther's little Catechism. Or isn't that exactly what our Lord wants from us - faithful disciples to continue in His Word? Such disciples will be found among those who teach and practice Luther's doctrine. Are you one of these? Or are you a Lutheran in name only.

In these latter days of the 20th century, as many say it's no longer possible to know the truth, let us pray for ourselves and our dear Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, that we might, each one of us, remain faithful Lutherans by conviction and not just in name only. And let us then cry out to the Lord of the Church, for ourselves and for all our brothers and sisters, "Lord, keep us steadfast in Your Word. Lord, keep us steadfast in Luther's doctrine."

To the glory of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

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