O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger, nor discipline me in your wrath. Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD - how long? Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise? I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. My eye wastes away because of grief; it grows weak because of all my foes. Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping. The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer. All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled; they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.
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Preaching Christ from the Bottom
Wednesday of Epiphany 5
11 February 2015
Fred Phelps the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church in Mississippi died last year. Westboro Baptist is the church that pickets military funerals decrying our nation's acceptance of homosexuality. Phelps and company had occasionally picketed congregations of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) because he thought the LCMS is too soft on homosexuality by calling homosexuals to repentance. I believe that what really incensed Phelps about the LCMS stand was that we said we love homosexuals, as we love all sinners. This is why we are willing to call them to repentance, rather than to let them die in their sins. About five years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that Phelps's church had the right to express its views on public property, no matter how hurtful and inappropriate that speech might be in the circumstances. This does teach us that what is considered legal according to the Constitution might not be a good or appropriate idea (abortion is a good example of this). The first amendment protects our right to express even bad ideas in the public square.
While on the radio some years ago, I heard Phelps define the gospel of Jesus Christ as God's wrath against sin and said that the Bible speaks much more about God's wrath than God's love. Needless to say, I was not very happy with this characterization of the divine revelation. While the Bible has a fair amount to say about the divine wrath against sin, even the purpose of the divine wrath is to drive the chastened sinner to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. The law is our "schoolmaster" to teach us our depravity, and with suffering, if necessary. "The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith" (Gal 3:24). Even God's wrath in the world is targeted to break down our faulty views of self-righteousness and thus leave us naked before God except for the clothing of the righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27). For Phelps the law was a naked expression of the divine hatred of sin, and worse yet, he called the law "the gospel!"
Phelps also ignored the express purpose of the divine revelation given in Holy Scripture. John, the Apostle, puts it so simply at the end of his Gospel: "These are written 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" (Jn 20:31). Phelps would have rewritten this word of God to read, "These are written that you might fear the God who hates sin." Um, something is lost in the translation. What is lost? The gospel! The Bible says that its purpose is that we would believe the gospel of Jesus Christ. Phelps disagrees. It is unfortunate that this is what is set before the media-consuming population of our country as an expression of Christianity.
Certainly, we need to preach against all sins; including all forms of adultery. However, the thing the world both needs most, and has no natural knowledge of, is the gospel, that is, the message that God has become reconciled to the world in Christ (2Co 5:18-21). God has given the fallen creatures of the world up to their practice of wickedness; so that when they hit bottom, they, through an understanding of God's wrath against sin, might give themselves over to God's mercy for poor sinners. When we hit bottom there is nowhere to look but up. This is when we preach Christ. Unfortunately, someone like Phelps got the airtime, while the message of sin and grace is ignored in the cacophony of either condemnation or moral permissiveness. Lord, have mercy!
"'Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves' (Rm 1:24). Hence Paul shows, that it was ungodliness which was the cause even of the perversion of the laws. God 'gave them up,' that is, let them alone. For an army commander, if he is being beaten in battle will retreat and flee, and in so doing give up his soldiers to the enemy, not by thrusting them himself but by stripping them of his assistance. So too God left those who were not minded to receive what comes from Him, but were the first to rush away from Him, even though He had wholly fulfilled His own part.
"Consider that He set before them the world as a form of teaching. He gave them reason and an understanding capable of perceiving what was needed. The people of that time used none of these things unto salvation, but perverted them to the opposite of what they had received. What was to be done then? To drag them by compulsion and force? But this would not to make them virtuous. It remained then, after that, for God to leave them alone, and this He did too, that in this way, if by no other, having by trial come to know the things they lusted after, they might flee from what was so shameful. For if a king's son, dishonoring his father, should choose to associate with robbers, murderers, and vandals, and prefer their actions to his father's house; the father might leave him, so that by actual trial, he might learn the foolishness of his own madness.
"But why does Paul mention no other sin, such as murder, for instance, or covetousness, but only sexual immorality? He seems to me to hint at his audience at the time, who were to receive the Epistle: "To impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves' (Rm 1:24). Note the emphasis here. It is most severe. For he means that they stood not in need of anyone else to do rude violence against them. The very treatment that enemies would have shown them, they did to themselves.
John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans, 3
Lord Jesus Christ, You have asked us to preach both sin and grace, that those whom You have given over to their depravity, might in their fall recognize You as their only Savior in Christ. Keep us from pride, hypocrisy, and self-righteousness, while we call others to account for their sin before You. Help us to confess that apart from You, we also would be given over to degrading depravity. Thank You, dear Lord Jesus. Amen.
For the Council of Presidents of the LCMS, as they meet together, that they would be strengthened in the confession of the true faith
For Philip Swanson, who is suffering from a back injury, that Lord would bring him healing
For those who hear purportedly Christian preaching that is devoid of the gospel of Christ, that the Lord would have mercy on them by sending them a shepherd to proclaim Christ's blood-bought mercy
Art: AERTSEN, Pieter Adoration of the Magi (c. 1560)
© Scott R. Murray, 2015