Crucifixes? Yes.

Popular Reformed Baptist pastor and blogger Tim Challies fired off an article that articulated the traditional Reformed interpretation regarding images in worship. More so, his article reflects the standard Reformed stance on the 2nd commandment (part of the first commandment in the Lutheran and Roman numbering) of the Decalogue. His blog post, titled Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix, has been making the rounds in the online community quite a bit the last couple days.

I think that much of Challies' reasoning is this post, mainly drawn from Anglican J.I. Packer and less so from Reformer John Calvin, is all wrong. Here is why.

Packer says, "But the very wording of the [second] commandment rules out such a limiting exposition. God says quite categorically, “you shall not make an idol in the form of anything” for use in worship."

This statement is misconstrued. Exodus 20:4-5a says the following: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them..."

The prohibition here is not against images in general, nor is it against images of Christ or other saints from the Scriptures. Or images of anything else for that matter. Nor is the prohibition against images in worship. Here is where Packer makes the passage say something that it doesn't say. The passage states that we should not *worship* images, not that we cannot have them *in worship.* That is quite a big difference.

He then proceeds to give two reasons as to why images are disallowed, building on his (faulty) interpretation of Exodus 20.

1. Images dishonour God, for they obscure His glory.

He quotes Calvin in support, "A true image of God is not to be found in all the world; and hence...His glory is defiled, and His truth corrupted by the lie, whenever He is set before our eyes in a visible form...Therefore, to devise any image of God is itself impious; because by this corruption His majesty is adulterated, and He is figured to be other than He is."

Ultimately, this objection is weak at best, nor is it supported by the Scriptures. As far as I can see, the Reformed theologians would have us believe that it would have been idolatry for anyone to draw a picture of Jesus, paint one, or snap a photograph of Him while He was alive on Earth during His thirty something years leading up to Calvary. Or perhaps that might be OK, because it might actually look like Jesus. I don't know, but either way, the prohibition on images of Christ on the cross is certainly nonsensical.

Packer continues, "The pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of his deity, his victory on the cross, and his present kingdom. It displays his human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength; it depicts the reality of his pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of his joy and his power. In both these cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity."

This statement is confusing to me. Was it idolatry to look at Christ when He was on the cross because His deity was obscured? I'm not sure what Packer and Challies would have us believe here. Not to mention, the objections rooted within this statement don't fly.

First, it was precisely Christ on the cross that died for the sins of the world. And that same Christ on the cross was fully man as well as fully God. St. Luke records for us in Acts 20:28, Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

Notice what he says: God obtained the church of God with His own blood. What? God died on the cross? Yep, that is precisely what is being said here. In fact, I will go even further. Christ on the cross and His subsequent rising from the tomb is in fact God's greatest place of glory. And we should seek God nowhere else but on that cross and up from that grace.

To put it simply, the standard objection that boils down to "but Jesus got off that cross" is sloppy. It was that Christ on that cross that died for your sins. An empty cross is nothing more than a Roman instrument of death. Jesus on the cross is the event that saved the world.

Secondly, I have a hard time seeing how Packer is not guilty of separating the natures of Christ here to a level that is unbiblical. In other words, it's Nestorian. How in the world is it an obscuring of the glory of God to depict the human Christ? I mean, Christ is fully God, right? He says that an image of Christ is unworthy because of what it fails to display - the deity of God.

But Christ, even on the cross dying, is God. Period.

2. Images mislead us. They convey false ideas about God.

Granted. They can. I get this objection. On the other hand, how in the world does a crucifix do this? It reminds us of the single most important event (along with the resurrection) in human history. In fact, all history hinges on this event. Not to mention, a crucifix reminds us of the lengths God went to in order to save us, because we are sinners.

Secondly, a crucifix is to remind us of the event that took place that saved us, not to look precisely down to the last detail like Jesus when He was Incarnate. Nobody thinks that.

My conclusion is that the standard Reformed reading of this text is either legalistic or simply a drastic misinterpretation of the Scriptures on this topic.

Not to mention, after the commandment was given in Exodus 20, just a few chapters later, God tells the Israelites to put images on the Ark of the Covenant, in which the Law would be held.

Exodus 25:18-20: And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end. Of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends. The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings, their faces one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.

It just doesn't make sense that God would completely forbid images, then tell the Israelites to make them and put them on the Ark, the holiest of objects for the Israelites.

Scripture does not forbid images. Nor does Scripture forbid us to have images in worship. It forbids us to actually worship them as the real thing.



Sacramentarians and the Eucharist

Who actually has the Lord's Supper? That is a question that doesn't get asked too often. Of course, every church body that administers the Lord's Supper thinks it has it. In fact, it would seem that churches who have a lower view of the Lord's Supper pretty much assume that every Christian church has it because after all, it is only bread and wine (or crackers and grape juice), and a bare remembrance of Christ's work on our behalf.

As Lutherans, we take a different stance on this question. In short, we see the plain reading and meaning of the Words of Institution as paramount. In other words, if a church reads the Words of Institution and their doctrine is that the Words of Institution actually mean what they say, they have the Lord's Supper. It is valid. Thus, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and some Anglicans (mainly Tractarian churches) have a valid Eucharist. Examples of churches that do not have a valid Eucharist would be mainstream Evangelical churches, any Baptist church, the Methodists, Wesleyans, and yes, even the Reformed churches, who confess a completely different sort of presence where the believer is lifted up to heaven by faith.

On the other hand, if a church reads the Words of Institution as "This is a symbol of My body" or something along those lines, they do not even have the Lord's Supper. It's something else. Or as they say themselves, it's just bread and grape juice. The same goes for any aberrant doctrine that rejects the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Consider St. Paul's warnings in his first epistle to the Corinthians.

When we say these things, we are simply agreeing with the churches themselves that they do not believe that the Eucharist is the true body and blood of Christ. Thus, they do not partake of the Lord's Supper.

Consider a parallel to Holy Baptism. When we baptize, we invoke the Triune Name of God. People are baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In other words, baptism is into the Name of the Trinity.

The same parallel applies here. If a church baptizes persons into the Name of the Trinity and actually holds to the doctrine of the true biblical Trinity, it is a valid Baptism. Hence, the majority of churches that call themselves Christian have a valid baptism because they actually believe the words spoken in Baptism. They confess the doctrine of the Trinity.

Here is an example of a church that does not: Latter Day Saints, or Mormons. The LDS church baptizes into the Name of the Triune God but they do not confess the Trinity. In fact, they believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three different gods. Hence, a Mormon baptism is invalid.

To have a valid baptism, church must utilize the Triune formula as well as confess the doctrine of the Trinity. Or else, what they are doing is not baptism. Likewise, in the Lord's Supper, a church must utilize the Words of Institution as well as confess what the Words of Institution actually mean; that this bread is the body of Christ and that this wine is the blood of Christ. If not, what the church is doing is not the Lord's Supper. It's pretty simple really.

Far from being sectarian and asinine, we are simply agreeing with what those churches actually confess regarding the Lord's Supper (or Baptism, in the case of the LDS). They themselves will tell us that the bread is NOT the body of Christ and the wine (or juice) is NOT the blood of Christ. Therefore, it is not the Lord's Supper and no member of a Lutheran church should be communing at these churches.

I'm pretty sure many believers in these churches that reject the Real Presence will be up in arms about this idea, but again, we are simply agreeing with what they themselves believe and confess.

Pretty straightforward.




A Lutheran brother recently inquired about the sanctification debates among Lutherans. I responded as follows:

"So the progressive sanctification debate is really a lot about what sanctification looks like, and how we as Lutherans understand the third use of the law. All agree that the law always accuses. But from my perspective, it seems to me that those that are "sanctification-focused" tend to downplay what the central focus should be. I have heard some of them say "yes justification is central BUT...." 

.......anyhoo I don't dig that kind of language. The Gospel should never have a "BUT" in it. It needs to be clear.

"My thing is that third use is one of thankfulness. The law is a guide for us in the sense of living out of thankful response to the Gospel. In freedom.

"Another helpful distinction is the Two Kinds of Righteousness. Before God--"coram Deo"--we are completely passive and holy and perfect and clean b/c of Christ. Our standing with Him is passive and holy. Before the world--"coram mundo"--we grow in our sanctification progressively. It is most helpful to understand that we do *not* grow **before God**. How could we anyways? God requires perfection. We grow before the world. Mankind looks at our works. Our neighbor needs our works. God does not need our works.

"Understanding it this way has been tremendously freeing for me. It is wonderfully Good News. I do not need to strive *before God*. I am already passive and clean before Him. I cannot get any holier before God b/c I have Christ's Righteousness. I strive out of freedom to serve my fellow man."


John Owen, Calvinism, and False Dilemmas

One of the main Reformed arguments for the assurance killing doctrine of limited atonement is the trilemma proposed by John Owen. Owen posits three potential situations.

1. Christ died for all the sins of all men.
2. Christ died for all the sins of some men.
3. Christ died for some of the sins of all men.

OK, so far so good. A Lutheran can concur that one of those three options is the correct answer. I also think that we can safely dismiss the third option, since nobody within Christianity really believes that Christ only died for some sins of all men. Owen then continues with a simple argument: Is unbelief a sin? Essentially Owen ends up arguing that #1 leads to universalism and therefore #2 is the only viable option. Philosophically this is the argument he is making.

The problem here is that Owen's trilemma is not mutally exclusive. In other words, there are other options. Sure, if you're stuck in philosophy-land the trilemma is fairly tight.

Owen's issue is that it fails to separate atonement from reception of the same. He argues that all of those for whom Christ died will receive the atonement, of course. But once again, this slops both the atonement and the reception into one thing. Not only that, but it also slops them together in option #1 as well as the already dismissed option #3. Although perhaps option #3 is what many Calvinists would claim Arminianism holds to, it's not true.

The point is, we can have option #1 be true and still not end up with universalism. The Calvinist will then respond that it makes Jesus a weak Savior who didn't really save anyone. But that's nonsense too. It's a grasping at philosophical straws in this case.

In Lutheranism we can answer this charge with the delivery in real-time of that perfect atonement via Word and Sacrament, which is for everyone universally, but will not be received in faith by everyone universally. Of course, the Calvinist responds that the atonement purchased faith for the elect. But where does Scripture speak in this manner? Ultimately, Owen's trilemma is nothing more than a philosophical argument, not one based on the Holy Scriptures. It provides us with a few problems, so to speak.

First, it inherently rejects the efficacy of the Sacraments. Why can't Calvinists affirm baptismal regeneration? Because they see all sorts of baptized people walking around who are atheists and unbelievers now. They're right about that. Not only that, but they simply cannot affirm the very plain baptism texts in the New Testament at face value because the plain and clear reading of them violates not only the L in the TULIP but also the P. In other words, if someone was baptized as an infant and truly saved but later falls away and rejects Christ and dies in unbelief, the Calvinist is forced to say that Christ did not die for them and that they were never saved in the first place. Since the baptism passages make a mess out of the sacred TULIP, the plain and clear readings of these are rejected. The same goes for the universality of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Back to the atonement. Based on Owen's argumentation, the atonement itself must be the actual creator of faith in person's, since Christ bought that faith at Calvary, as opposed to the means of grace being the worker of faith, as Scripture states. Without getting into universal objective justification we'll just leave it here.

In short, Owen ties up the actual atonement with the reception of the atonement in real-time via grace alone. In Scripture we have Christ dying for the entire world universally. He died and rose for every sin ever committed. For believers and unbelievers alike. But not all are saved. Why?

It's not because Christ did not die for them. 1 Corinthians 15 even says that the Gospel that St. Paul preached to people (not only people already saved) was that Christ died and rose for their sins. Yet, that atonement must actually be received via the Gospel; even Calvinists teach that. In fact, only the most extreme Hyper Calvinists do not teach that.

So what condemns a person? Rejection of Christ. The Scriptures teach this. A person who rejects Christ is still in their sins. They remain children of wrath, just as we also were (Eph 2:1-3, ff). This raises another question for the Calvinists. If the atonement and the reception are conflated into one as Owen does, why are the elect under the wrath of God at any point in time? They can't have it both ways and simultaneously hold to Owen's trilemma.

At the end of the day, Owen's trilemma just doesn't hold up to Scripture. The Holy Scriptures simply do not speak in the manner that Owen does and that of all things should raise a red flag for any Christian.



Christ alone is our hope and assurance

To those who feel or felt burned by their church (regardless of what church or denomination it is) by all the burdens put on you to do your part, this message is for you:

It is finished. Christ was crucified for your sins. It is fully by God's grace. There is nothing you can do, no matter how small part of yourself, to earn that. Not a whiff of law nor act of obedience on your part. Grace is not only God's unmerited favor for you, by what Christ did, but it is also to you. That is the Gospel. That is the Good News. It is for you. And to you.

Christ paid for your sins to win forgiveness for all of you, not contingent on anything you do on your part, not even faith. He didn't just provide forgiveness for you at the cross, but He also provide forgiveness to you, when it is given to you to believe and receive what He has done.

Rejoice and be glad what He did for you and to you. It is finished. You are forgiven. It is true today as it is yesterday. It is true even in your moments of despair as in when it is in you feeling high. God's word stands and remains objectively true whether we feel high or low. And His word says God loves you so much that He gave Christ for us and to us, when we were sinners.

He didn't die for you hypothetically. He died for you truly. It isn't contingent on how well we keep God's law, much less man-made laws. Christ kept God's law for us. He did it all that He may be our substitute in our place to suffer God's wrath for our sins.

We are free from needing to keep God's law (much less man-made laws) to find assurance that only Christ can give. Look to Him and Him alone, and He will give you peace. His peace.

Whatever you do out of faith, in obedience to God's law or as good works, God accepts not because we are less sinners. But He accepts them because He sees Christ in you.

That's right. Christ's righteousness is imputed to you. He sees you as righteous not by what you do. But what Christ did for you and to you. It isn't earned. Not before you receive Him, nor after you receive Him.

Hope in Him alone. His love for you in the most sacrificial terms is real, not merely hypothetical. Nor contingent on what you do.

Cast all your burdens and cares unto Him, for He who paid for your sins also rose again for you to have hope,  and He promises to be with you always. Look to that promise you have in Him, where there is forgiveness, righteousness imputed unto you by His merits (not yours), and justification.

You truly are justified children of God. Christ made sure of that when He kept God's law perfectly and died in our place as the unblemished Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

He freely desires to justify you, not by anything you do. When you believe with repentant hearts what He did for you, you have that justification He won for. It is legal declaration that you are right with Him, even though you were and are sinners. It is given to you from outside yourself through His word that declares to you God no longer sees you as sinners worthy of death but sees Christ in you and by Him, you are justified.

He truly justifies you. And it is all because He loves you and desires to give you grace, peace and mercy unto you.

Rest in His love that He provides in Christ crucified and resurrected for you. There's your hope, there's your peace, there's your assurance. Look nowhere else for that.

Here we stand.


Gospel, Law, and Glawspel

St. Matthew 22:34-40: But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the prophets."

It is quite common in recent church history, especially in more liberal theologies, to see this passage as the Gospel in a nutshell. In other words, love God and love others is the Gospel.

Certainly, being a statement and command of Christ, loving God and loving others is of supreme importance. No Christian would dispute that. However, loving God and loving your neighbor is not the Gospel. The Gospel, or good news, is never a command, nor is the Gospel our actions, however loving they may be.

To be even more clear, those who claim that this passage in St. Matthew is a concise statement of the Gospel have actually missed the Gospel altogether.

Just read the passage. The Pharisee asked Christ, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" Jesus answered the Pharisee that the greatest commandment is to love God with all of your being. And the second one is to love your neighbor as if they were yourself.

In very plain language, these are commandments. In broad terms, anything that is a commandment is law, not Gospel. Gospel promises. It does not command. That is the office of the law. This is why, in our Lutheran Confessions of faith, we have excerpts in the Epitome and the Solid Declaration regarding the third use of the law. There is no third use of the Gospel or anything like that. The new obedience of the Christian is dealt with in terms of both law and Gospel, but it is always the law that makes the demands and tells us what should be done, never the Gospel. It is always the law that shows us what we ought to do and what we have not done. It is always the law that shows us our need to repent because it is precisely that law that shows us how short we really fall.

Let's push this a little further. Jesus' statements are a summation of the Ten Commandments. Love the Lord your God is a summary of the first table of the Law; commandments 1-3. Love your neighbor as yourself is a summary of the second table of the Law; commandments 4-10. In other words, if we hash this out to its conclusion, a theology that claims that Matthew 22:37-40 is the Gospel is ultimately doing the same exact thing as saying that the Ten Commandments are the Gospel. This is, ironically, a form of "Pharisaical Christianity." It's Gospel-less. Ultimately, this sort of theology teaches salvation by keeping the Law. How is this any different than the Pharisees? Hence, liberal theology that claims this is the Gospel is teaching a false Gospel.

Far from evicting obedience from the Christian faith, the Gospel - the real one - provides for the only sort of obedience that is genuine. Obedience done from love because our obedience does not contribute to our justification. We can never be declared righteous before God by that, because God's standards in this arena are perfection. Hence the work of Christ for us (the Gospel). Even so, our obedience in this life is never perfect. We are still simultaneously sinner and saint, after all. We need a righteousness that is above anything we could ever obtain through our love and obedience to commandments. We need a righteousness that is perfect. Only Jesus obtained that, and only Jesus can give us that.

That is why in the Divine Service we confess: "Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not love You with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us. Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your Holy Name. Amen." (LSB - Divine Service I)