Covenant and Violence

“Historians have provided thorough and irrefutable documentation that the century just lived through (the twentieth) has been the most murderous on record.”[1]  This violence is in some way attributable to our lost sense of living in covenant community.  Covenant is the premise of Creation; Creation is the context of covenant.  Simply put, all of life is relational which can only be sustained in covenant.  Let us examine this premise further.

The distinctive Christian doctrine of Trinity lays the foundation for understanding all of reality as covenantal and relational.

Trinity understands God as three-personed: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God in community, each ‘person’ in active communion with the others.  We are given an understanding of God that is most emphatically personal and interpersonal.  God is nothing if not personal.  If God is revealed as personal, the only way that God can be known is in personal response.[2]

The very character and nature of God testified to in Scripture is dialogical.  God initiates dialogue, calls out, and speaks into being.  This calling out and speaking enables and invites response from both the larger Creation and from humanity.  Again, God is relational.

As a dialogical Person, God is not merely transcendent but imminent within our world.  The “pathos” of God is intimately engaged in our world.  Not only does God act, but can be acted upon.  There are several ways that this is true, not least of which is prayer.  Most profoundly, this is seen through the drama of the crucifixion in which the Father and the Son both suffer.  The Son dies and the Father experiences Son-less-ness.  God’s commitment to covenant ultimately leads to the cross.  True dialogue requires risk and the potential for both dialogical partners to be changed.

As may be obvious, dialogue is not one-sided.  Israel, human persons, the nations, andCeation ultimately are invited into this divine dialogue.  “Praise-thanks and lament-complaint bespeaks of Israel as a fully engaged dialogic partner who plays a role vis-à-vis YHWH in which a profound drama of fidelity and infidelity is regularly performed.”[3]

Israel, and by extension other persons, is called into genuine relatedness in which open and honest communication might occur.  This is primarily done through covenant.  First, God loves Israel.  God brings into being this nation as a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” set apart for God’s purposes (doing).  YHWH is committed to Israel.  Thus, YHWH chooses Israel, though not because of any particular strength, value, or individual quality that sets it apart.

In response to God loving, choosing, and setting God’s heart upon them, Israel is called and even commanded to love God alone and to live in obedient faithfulness to YHWH.  Both God’s wrath and grace must be understood in terms of its connection with covenant.  Israel is called to acknowledge God’s sovereignty, to hear and obey (do justice), and to be holy as YHWH is holy.  In other words, Israel is continuously called (whether from fidelity or infidelity on their part) to reflect God’s character and nature back in the world through sustained communion with the Lover.  Even in the midst of exile, death, and destruction, Israel dares to trust and hope in this God of covenant fidelity.

The second of God’s dialogical partners is humanity.  Humanity is entirely dependent upon God.  They are creatures and God is Creator and the creature must remember this connection.  Because God is sovereign, humanity is called to live obediently toward YHWH.  Yet, God allows freedom in the human person because God is not coercive.  This allows a genuine response, even in the form of complaint, from the human agents.  Brueggemann says it thus, “What full humanness requires and expects in this tradition, moreover, is the courage to assert and the confidence to yield.”[4]  As such, humanity is called to act in three ways: listening (obedience), discerning (“response to hidden generosity of God”), and trusting (in God’s faithfulness).  Likewise, humanity is enabled to bring complaint, petition, and thanksgiving before God.  This full confidence in YHWH leads to praise and hope.  Again, it is a life lived in “glad obedience, trustful freedom, and venturesome relatedness.”[5]

The nations are also a dialogical partner with YHWH.  Four nations stand out in this partnership in Israel’s testimony: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia.  A typical pattern emerges in these relationships.  First, God covenants with all creation and all nations through Noah.  As such, YHWH makes a claim on all nations, not only Israel.  God commands the nations.  The nations respond but eventually overstep their boundaries of power, lacking mercy.  Finally, God responds in wrath toward those nations that fail to live by the covenant (living justly).  However, God also promises to deliver and restore them, if they turn from their wickedness.

Creation is the final dialogical partner with YHWH.  YHWH blesses creation to provide an abundance that provides and sustains life.  However, creation is “relinquished to the power of chaos and curse when human agents, charged with the well-being of creation, renege on their caretaking responsibility.”[6]  Yet, YHWH’s does not allow death and destruction to be the last word in the conversation with those dialogical partners.  Instead, God restores creation to life-giving, life-blessing, and life-sustaining potential.

“To speak of ‘the structures of covenant life’ can be a helpful way to speak of the law.  The language of structure catches up the theme of creation; the ordering of community is in tune with God’s ordering of the cosmos.  Just as the law and structures, more generally, were an integral part of God’s work in creation (Gen 1:28; 2:15-17), so God, in giving the law to Israel, provides structure for society.  The law is good, a gracious divine gift, and is given for the sake of a well-ordered community.”[7]



Birch, Bruce C. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.

Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005.


[1] Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 9.

[2] Peterson, Eugene H. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005, 45.

[3] Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 13.

[4] Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 65.

[5] Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 90.

[6] Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009, 166.

[7] Birch, Bruce C.. A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament. 2nd ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005, 127.

“Productive” Pastors

Genesis 1 is the great Creation narrative.  God subdues and orders chaos with only a word.  Space is created where life can be sustained and blessed by its Creator.  For six days God creates “space” and fills it with every living creature.  On the sixth day, humanity is created, crowning the Creation of God’s delight.  On the seventh day God rests and separates that day by making it holy.

There is much that can be said concerning those first six days of Creation.  Yet, the first thing that humanity sees God “doing” is not creating but resting.  If we are truly created in the imago Dei, image of God, this might be an important thing to note.  God definitely creates us to be laborers within the creation (tilling the soil).  Yet, God does not define God’s self by the accomplishment of tasks.

Our world is one that typically values people in terms of production.  How useful we are to another’s agenda or how we benefit the “bottom line” is employed to determine our “worth.”  This business-model mentality has seeped into the Church.  Pastors are expected to make their churches “grow.”  Success is determined by how many people were “saved” or “sanctified.”  Sometimes it can almost feel like the pastor is being paraded around like a show dog in front of the judges.  It’s a lot of expectations to fill.

The culture is not entirely at fault.  Pastors quite often want to see numerical and spiritual growth.  Those are necessarily bad things.  But, we can become very easily depressed if the church does not measure up to our expectations or if it falls far short of our hopes.  We hang our heads; we mope and worry.  If we have placed our “worth” and “value” in terms of the business-model’s idea of success, we will often be severely disappointed.

Is God’s assessment of us the same as the business-model?  Are we only of use to God in terms of our productivity?  Is God’s favor derivative of our work?  Refer back to the first account of Creation.  God creates humanity on the sixth day.  Even before we have managed to do one productive thing, God blesses us along with all of Creation.  We can’t discount that God calls us to labor in the Garden, but we were created for so much more than cheap labor.  After all, God creates everything in only a word… there does not seem to be a pressing need for our productivity to get things accomplished.

The seventh day is the Sabbath, set apart and made holy.  The invitation to rest is given to humanity even before it has been “productive.”  This day of rest points humanity towards what is God’s deepest desire: relationship.  God is not a cruel and harsh task-master, ready to make sure we meet our quota.  Does God invite our participation in caring for Creation?  Yes.  We are called to govern over it, but even this is done in relation to God!  Yet, our “value” is found in our connection with God alone!

Pastors are stilled called today to “till the soil” and prepare the seed in the lives of people to whom we minister.  It is a wonderful, joyous calling.  However, our primary goal is not the accomplishment of tasks, productivity for bottom lines, or business-model value systems of evaluating ourselves and others.  Rather, we have the wonderful opportunity to “rest” in the presence of God and invite others to do the same.  In a world that pushes all of us to find our value in what we do rather than who we are, pastors have an important and challenging task.  We must be careful not to get wrapped up in a system that causes us to place our worth in terms of our “success.”  And, we must hold up this same vision for our congregation.  Find your value in whose you are as God’s child and “good” creation!

Repentance and Faith: Luther’s Attack on Indulgences

            Luther is perhaps best known for his Ninety-Five Theses, which was a document pointedly opposing the indulgence system in place within the Church.  For Luther, salvation was not something that could be attained by our merits or anything in which we might boast.  Rather, salvation was through faith alone.  Thus, indulgences were a clear violation of the Scriptural vision of justification and salvation.  However, to better understand the tension, we must first understand the purpose of the indulgences and how they evolved up into Luther’s day.  From this brief outline, we will be able to better comprehend Luther’s comprehension of God’s work within the human life.

            A basic definition and function of an indulgence is in order.  G. R. Evans defines an indulgence thus:

An indulgence was the remission by the Church of the temporal penalty of forgiven sin (the punishment imposed by a priest, not the eternal consequences).  So, it was a ‘letting off’ of the acts which would otherwise have had to be done in penance.  The idea was that God recognized the Church’s ‘sentences’ on penitents, because he had given the Church authority to impose them.  This was based on Jesus’ grant of the power to bind and loose in heaven and on earth, which came to be known as ‘the power of the key’ – that is, the power to use, or refuse to use, the ‘keys’ to let someone into heaven…In the course of the Middle Ages, it occurred to the Church’s authorities that they could charge money for indulgences, and the system became corrupted.[1]

This formulation highlights the very juridical social context of the Medieval period.  Every sin must find some kind of tangible restitution.  As such, “punishment” was a necessary remedy to make right what had been made wrong through the sinful act.

Initially, the idea of an indulgence was not altogether theologically problematic.  If sin required some type of restitution, then that reparation must “cost” something.  King David said something similar in buying the threshing floor for a sacrifice; he would not make a sacrifice that did not cost him something.  Indulgences were an extension of such thinking.  Penalties tend to make the most difference in a person’s life when the remuneration for that penalty involves more than just saying words or thinking sorrowful thoughts.  Rather, penitence must engage the whole person.

“When in the eleventh century the doctrine of indulgences first begins to appear in a formal way, it rests on these elements: absolution of sin and commutation of punishment, intercession of the Church and substitution of good works.”[2]  In other words, the indulgences did not get one into heaven, only God could do that.  Rather, the “treasury” of good works from Christ and the saints could be substituted for the good works that were required for penance.  If a person seeking indulgences was not deemed to be absolved of sin, then they were not allowed to acquire an indulgence.  Thus, initially the Church did not use them as a salvation Ponzi scheme.  Of course, that is not to say that this does not still contain theological problems that should be challenged (i.e., Purgatory).

Although the idea of indulgences were initially a way to communicate that salvation is communal and that we are all in this journey of faith together, the faulty theology still provided a foothold for abuses.  The selling of indulgences soon became a very profitable means to raise funds for the Church.  Biel and others even began preaching that indulgences were effaceable for the dead.  There was even a poetic jingle that became an almost liturgical mantra undergirding this poor theology of indulgences: “As soon as the coin in the coin box rings, another soul from purgatory springs!”[3]  Salvation had been rendered a bartering system, a commodity to ensure salvation for one’s self and one’s relatives.  God could be controlled by the size of one’s purse.  Reliance on God could easily take a back seat to ensuring one’s own salvation by one’s own means.

Luther gets at the heart of the problem in selling indulgences for monetary gain.  Not only does selling indulgences relegate salvation to the few that can afford it, but it also calls into question the authority and goodwill of the pope.  Luther writes:

’Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?  The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.’[4]

Indeed, if the pope is truly able to “empty purgatory” then wouldn’t the situation demand it?  If people are waiting and cannot currently enter heave and yet the pope holds the “keys”, then should he not desire for those in Purgatory to enter into God’s presence?  Luther is entirely right.  Monetary gain seems a very trivial pursuit in comparison to the lives of the saints that are still in limbo.

Of course, this was not the only issue that Luther posed against the selling of indulgences.  He also thought that indulgences besmirched the Gospel and robbed it of its call and power.  “The traffic in indulgences was in fact for Luther, like the speculative theology of the Scholastics, a blow to the theology of the cross, an emptying of the meaning of the cross, the presumptuous human attempt to find God independently of the cross and suffering.”[5]  This is adequately demonstrated in the scene of the Gospels where Jesus shows the disciples his wounds from the crucifixion and tells them, “As the Father has sent me so I am sending you.”  In other words, Christ calls us into a cruciform life of suffering, even as he has suffered.  Indulgences seem only as a way to avoid suffering and “picking up our cross and following him.”

Luther’s contempt for indulgences did not remain an isolated debate with the doctrine of the Church.  Instead, where the issue of indulgences challenged the theological underpinnings, other doors were opened to challenge other doctrines and practices that hinged upon the same theology.

Although initially about indulgences, the theological scope of the controversy rapidly expanded.  Luther may have been trying to defend good Catholic doctrine against the abuse of the Dominicans, but the way he went about doing this implicitly attacked much of the generally accepted theology of the Catholic Church.  Soon questions about indulgences were overshadowed by issues of free will and divine grace, and by the most basic questions of religious authority.[6]

Thus, even areas that Luther did not intend to challenge ultimately came under fire as the implications of Luther’s theology were drawn out and considered.  One such area that was drastically challenged was the contemporary theology of the Medieval Church.  However, the attack on indulgences also opened up the reformation of ecclesiology and soteriology as unmediated, save through Christ alone.  The end result was a diminishing practice of repentance and penance within the Protestant Church.

The Roman Catholic Church did not take Luther’s abuse lying down.  Prierias contended against Luther’s position by affirming the authority of the Church.  He counters:

(1) The entire church as to its essence… is the gathering of all believers in Christ for worship.  The entire church as to its power… is the Roman church, the head of all churches, and the pope.  The Roman church as to its representation… is the college of cardinals, but as to its power… the pope, in a manner different, of course, from Christ.  (2) As the entire church cannot err when it decides concerning faith or morals, so also a true council, when it does what it can to understand the truth, cannot err, at least not in the end result… and I take this to include the head [the pope].  For even a council can initially be deceived, so long as the process of searching for the truth goes on.  Yes, sometimes a council has been deceived, though it has finally recognized the truth with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Likewise also the Roman church and the pope cannot err when he hands down a decision in his capacity as pope, that is, when he makes use of his office and does what is in his power to know the truth.  (3) Whoever does not hold to the doctrine of the Roman church and to the pope as the infallible rule of faith, from which also Holy Scriptures derives its power and authority, is a heretic… Whoever says of indulgences that the Roman Church cannot do what it actually does, is a heretic.[7]

Thus, Prierias constructs a circular argument for the Roman Church’s authority and the pope’s infallibility that cannot be called into question without deeming one a heretic.  Prierias goes so far as to say that the Church is actually above the Scriptures and is the bastion of truth.

Luther responds in hostile fashion to this formulation of authority and infallibility.  He recognizes that when a tradition places itself above any correction or accountability, when it becomes monolithic, it is then demonic.  Unequivocally, Luther deems the pope to be the anti-Christ, no small accusation!

As mentioned above, as the implications of the debate concerning indulgences were considered more fully, Luther began not only to undermine the system of indulgences but also questioned the legitimacy of the papacy’s power.  This contention centered on the issue of salvation.  Salvation, Luther claimed, was not determined by the pope but by Christ alone.  The question became a matter of “how” this was accomplished.  Luther states:

’Therefore, we are justified by faith, and by faith also we receive peace, not by works, penance, or confessions.’  Contrary to the assertion that the sacraments of the new covenant guarantee grace to those who ‘place no obstacle in the way,’ Luther wrote: ‘It is not the sacrament, but faith in the sacrament that justifies.’[8]

Faith has now become the reception of salvation.  Although we could easily argue that Luther has merely traded in one form of works’ righteousness for another, he did not even comprehend “faith” as something that any person could achieve.  Rather, “faith” was a gift from God to trust in the meritorious works of Christ alone for salvation.  Luther did not envision “faith” as something that a person could achieve or muster up in order to secure salvation for themselves.  He would have understood this as a veiled works’ righteousness that did not differ from indulgences and should be done away with.

Of course, within our Protestant context today, we have in many ways created a new works’ righteousness that is based upon “faith.”  We preach that a person must “believe” in Christ and they will be saved as a result.  The result is that we depend on our own merit to “have faith” and neglect to depend on God to work out salvation in us.  We must be careful to listen to Luther at this point.  Indeed, salvation is through Christ alone.

If a person is not able to obtain salvation through meritorious works, then does repentance serve any purpose at all?  Is it even necessary to do any works if God is the One who works all righteousness?  Luther maintains that confession is a necessary practice among the believers, one to another.  The priesthood of believers can speak the words of Christ to those who confess their sins: “You are forgiven.  Now, go and sin no more.” This imperative to “sin no more” is not the Biel approach, where we do our very best, but rather, it is the out-flowing of God’s love that consists of proper righteousness.  Luther himself wrote,

“Nevertheless I will allow no man to take private confession away from me, and I would not give it up for all the treasures of the world, since I know what comfort and strength it has given me.  No one knows what it can do for him except one who has struggled often and long with the devil.  Yea, the devil would have slain me long ago, if the confession had not sustained me.”[9]

The Church does hold the keys of salvation for it testifies to the Gospel, which is Christ.  However, it only holds those keys insofar as it is connected to the Head of the Body: Jesus the Christ.  John 20:22-23 reads, “And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”   In other words, the Church does not merit salvation, but it is no less a distributor of the grace which it has received.  After all, our creeds remind us that faith does not come to us unmediated but is thoroughly mediated through apostolic testimony to the Gospel.

Thus, the Church does have a role to play in salvation, although it is still Christ alone who gives salvation to those who live by faith.  As the communion sanctorum, the Body of Christ, whose Head is Christ, the Church is commissioned to forgive one another and to hold one another accountable.

The doctrine of salvation and ecclesiology are not separate in Luther’s theology.  Although it is not fully developed, especially early in Luther’s career, one, in some sense, constitutes the other.  Salvation comes by hearing God’s Word and having faith in the Gospel.  People are thus “grafted” into the Body of Christ.  They are gathered together, participating in this shared life with God and one another.  This is the power of the Gospel, which makes Christ known to us through the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel, which is Christ and the regula fidei, is the necessary means for salvation and the formation of the Body of Christ.  Luther writes, “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”[10]  Thus, those that are members of the communio sanctorum are also those that have received the Gospel and responded in belief and faith in Christ Jesus.  And, furthermore, where the true Church is there God’s Word will be found also!

Scripture testifies to the Gospel, which is Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  That is the very foundation of the Church and, by extension, the priesthood of all believers.  Without the Gospel, the Church does not exist.  Connecting Christ as the foundation for the true Church, Luther proclaims:

Whoever seeks Christ must first find the church.  Now the church is not wood and stone but the group of people who believe in Christ.  Whoever seeks the church should join himself to them and observe what they teach, pray, and believe.  For they certainly have Christ among them.[11]

Thus, participation in the priesthood of believers entails connection with Christ and the Church, not autonomous individuality on a personal, spiritual quest.  Rather, the community of God is where the Word is found and the Word is where the community of God is found.  The true Church cannot be separated from the presence of Christ.

This distinction between salvation that comes from God through the Gospel and a cheap imitation offered by man establishes a dichotomy between the true and the false Church.  The priesthood of believers was only those that participated in the life of the true Church.  Scripture became the cornerstone upon which to judge what truly constituted the living Church.  Moreover, the validity of “tradition” and practices of that tradition (i.e., the councils, the papacy, etc.) were contingent upon their coherence with the Scriptural witness.

Repentance was a means by which the person could participate in communion with the Body.  First, repentance acknowledges that we are a part of the community of believers and that we truly do need each other.  It recognizes that salvation is not an individual quest, but the journey with the community.  Secondly, repentance was a looking into one’s self.  It is the realization and recognition of what we truly are before God: sinners incapable of saving ourselves and in need of a Savior.  Although it certainly is a “turning” in our actions, it is more a position of humility in which we throw ourselves at the mercy of God to save us.

But might penance simply be another form of works’ righteousness?  Quite possibly, yes!  However, Luther does not want to do away with good works entirely.  He merely wants to constrain their purpose.  Paul Althaus contends:

He says that good works, the ‘works of grace,’ are necessary.  At the same time, he refuses to characterize them as necessary for salvation or for justification.  They are necessary as a witness of faith (and therewith they give glory to the heavenly Father and serve the neighbor).  They are not, however, necessary ‘for salvation.’  Such a teleological significance would set aside the ‘by grace alone’ and ‘by faith alone of justification and of salvation.  Luther thought that the expression that works or the new obedience are necessary to salvation raises thoughts about merit and guilt and that such questions are unbearable in the discussion of salvation.  The expression ‘works are necessary to salvation’ is thus equivocal and to be avoided in theology as improper… The new obedience flows from the certainty that salvation is already present and is oriented to its future revelation.[12]

As such, Luther is not opposed to “good works” that are a response to the grace that we have freely received in Christ Jesus.  Penance is an integral and good part of that response for it continuously reminds us of who we truly are (sinners) and who Christ truly is (Savior).  Penance as a means of salvation becomes no less a works’ righteousness which Luther wants to avoid at all costs.

Justification and salvation by grace through faith alone must now be discussed.  It is important that we establish Luther’s conceptualization for how Christ affects salvation for the community of faith.  If we are in no way responsible to this salvation, then how is it effective as salvation in the lives of believers?

As has been discussed, the human person cannot bring about their own salvation.  As Augustine would have affirmed, humanity is entirely sinful and the soul has become “curved in on itself.”  As such, there is no way for humanity to save itself.  Humanity is always bent toward evil and continuously wicked in its desires.

Both Luther and Augustine affirm that salvation is only possible through God alone.  Christ “pays the price” for our sins and takes our place, which is the penal-substitution atonement theory.  As we receive this gift that is through grace by faith, Christ imputes his righteousness to us.  It is literally not our own righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness that covers us.  Underneath, we remain sinners… thus the need for continued penance.

A useful image for understanding Luther’s conception of imputed righteousness is thinking of Christ’s righteousness as a cloak that we are clothed in.  Although we remain sinners, God sees us “clothed” in Christ and thus counts us innocent, justified, and saved.  The Father does not see us, but sees Christ in our stead.  Of course, theologically this creates all sorts of dilemmas.  However, Luther is simply working from the dominant atonement framework of his day.

Repentance, in response to this gracious gift, must cost one something.  However, the “cost” does not merit salvation.  Instead, Luther contends for a nuanced understanding.

‘It is dangerous to believe that we can draw on the treasures of the Church without adding anything ourselves.’  He had thus recognized the threat to true repentance as early as 1514, though good works still constituted the treasure of the Church for him at the time…  Two key sentences marked the minimal platform Luther urged the Church to accept: ‘It is a grievous error to think that one could make amends for his sins, as God forgives sins without recompense, out of unlimited grace at all times, and demands nothing in return but living a proper life from then on.[13]

As such, penance is merely reliance upon God to enable one to live “a proper life” which reflects Christ.  There is no cheap grace that does not entail some sort of sacrifice from the sinner.  But, as noted, the “good works”, which include penance, do not merit grace because one cannot “make amends for his sins.”  It is too costly for us to “pay.”  Christ alone is meritorious.  However, that does not excuse us from responding with “good works” that reflect God’s character and nature in the world in tangible ways.



Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.

Evans, G. R.. Faith in the Medieval World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Lienhard, Marc. Luther, Witness to Jesus Christ: Stages and Themes of the Reformer’s Christology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1982.

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999.

McNally, Robert Edwin. “Ninety-five theses of Martin Luther : 1517-1967.” Theological Studies

28, no. 3 (September 1, 1967): 439-480. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials,

EBSCOhost (accessed March 26, 2012).

Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Sunshine, Glenn S.. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

[1] Evans, G. R.. Faith in the Medieval World. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2002, 68.

[2] McNally, Robert Edwin. “Ninety-five theses of Martin Luther : 1517-1967.” Theological Studies

28, no. 3 (September 1, 1967), 442.

[3] Sunshine, Glenn S.. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 26.

[4] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999, 103.

[5] Lienhard, Marc. Luther, Witness to Jesus Christ: Stages and Themes of the Reformer’s Christology. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1982, 101-02.

[6] Sunshine, Glenn S.. The Reformation for Armchair Theologians. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 28-29.

[7] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999, 108.

[8] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1999, 105.

[9] Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 317. n. 103

[10] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 281.

[11] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 287.

[12] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 250-51.

[13] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006, 191-92.

Martin Luther’s Priesthood of Believers

            Significant social, geo-political, ecclesial, and theological shifts and upheavals marked the nearly two hundred years preceding Martin Luther’s penning of the Ninety-Five Theses.  The use and abuse of papal authority and power was a subject of intense debate well before Luther.  In fact, reformation within the Church had been called for by those such as John Wyclif and John Hus, to name only a couple of the dissenting voices.  Thus, the Reformation did not start with Luther, although it certainly may have culminated and climaxed in Luther’s thought and action, which now characterize the time period.

            Early reform was embodied and enacted in various ways.  The mendicant movement within the Catholic Church, for instance, was designed to correct some of the imbalances of power and the accompanying abuse that was perceived to be occurring.  The Observant Movement made “conceivable an ecclesiastical organization that, though not independent of the pope, could gain a measure of independence from Rome.”[1]  This was preferable to those who perceived the papacy acting in opposition to Christ’s manner of life, namely the call to a life of poverty!  Luther was vastly influenced by such mendicant orders being a member of the “Observant Augustinians.”[2]

            Still others tried to formulate theological positions that warranted the deconstruction of the Church’s hierarchal power and the reconstruction of its doctrine.  Joachim of Fiore, for instance, posited that time was actually Trinitarian in nature.  The time of the Father was in the Old Testament; the time of the Son in the New Testament until the 1300’s; and the time of the Spirit began in the 1300’s and initiated the millennium.[3]  This age of the Spirit would usher in the “time of the friars” while exterminating papal rule.  The “millennium” of God’s reign continued to be an important subject of thought for Luther.

However, Luther’s attack on papal authority is not a form of chiliasm, neither does it devolve into a Zionistic activism.  Luther was not interested in provoking the underclass and the underprivileged to establish an autonomous nation-state or to found the city of God through violent means, as so many others were attempting.  In actuality, Luther deplored and denounced such futile action, claiming, as had Augustine, that God alone would establish God’s kingdom in God’s time and in God’s way.  Thus, the priesthood of believers was not to be conceived as a geo-political entity striving for power among the nations and kingdoms of this world.

In contrast, Rome had fashioned itself as God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in Heaven.”  Thus, conquering lands and bringing them under their authority was a way to establish the City of God among men.  Yet, Luther, and many others, could not abide by such debased notions of God’s Kingdom.  Oberman concludes:

It is of lasting significance that Luther’s rejection of all historical utopias did not entail abandoning the Church and the world to chaos: Christians are threatened but not helpless, under attack but not defenseless.  Where the Gospel is preached, Satan’s destructive assaults can be survived.  Where Christian teachings tear the authorities from the clutches of the Antichrist, the world can once again come into its own… Reformation is the work of God, betterment the task of Adam and Eve.[4]

Thus, the priesthood of believers, as we will see, has a significant role to play in what God is doing in the world.  Although God is the primary Actor, the true Church is by no means a silent observer.  Rather, God covenants with us, calling us to obedience by which God will restore and redeem creation.  Thus, “reform” is God’s work.  Humanity can only respond to, not initiate, that work.

According to Oberman, initially the outcry against the Church’s doctrine and practice revolved around the issue of ecclesial authority and Christ’s call to poverty.  He describes a significant turning point early in the call for reformation and renewal of the Church:

Pope John XXII initially questioned, then rejected and condemned a strict interpretation of the rule of poverty laid down in both documents [St. Francis of Assisi’s first rule and last will].  From that point on, not only was the Church’s proper Christian way of life at issue, but also the much further-reaching question of papal authority and the foundations of a hierarchically structured Church.  Thus the storm of indignation caused by the pope’s condemnation in 1323 did not solely concern his repudiation of the strict ideal of poverty.[5]

This offense indicated a conflict of interest between a life of faith and papal use of power.  Indulgences were sold to raise money to support war, procure power, and propagate privilege for the few.  Church offices were sold to secure favors from rulers or elicit political alliances.  And, during this period, the Church was actually the largest landowner.  Politics, rather than genuine piety, appeared to dictate the direction of the Church.  It was apparent that the “Church” not only largely shunned such extreme self-denial, but practiced quite the opposite.  How could those holding positions within the Church live in ways not commensurate with Christ’s life?  And, what should be done about this situation?

The foundering of hierarchal, ecclesial authority inevitably created fissures of many shapes and sizes within the Church.  Hus, who would later be condemned as a heretic and burned at the stake, attacked the authority of the Church where it was seen to be in direct opposition to the life of Christ.  Oberman notes:

Amid the conflicts and rival claims of his time, Hus draws the following sharp conclusion: It is not obedience to Rome, but rather obedience to God which is the decisive mark of the true Church.  To her belong those whom God through His eternal predestination has chosen as the obedient.  With its hunger for power and property, the papal hierarchy has forfeited any right to be regarded as part of the true Church, which can be recognized by the imitation of Christ and the apostles.[6]

Thus, the door for questioning, destabilizing, and de-legitimating hierarchal, ecclesial authority is opened for Luther and others to walk through.  More importantly, this gives opportunity for a radical revamping of the community of saints.

Along with the erosion of the papacy’s spiritual empire, a decentralized geo-political hegemony made it difficult to bring these prophetic voices to a halt.  Several nations were simultaneously vying for autonomy from papal rule.  King Henry VIII and the German princes were some of those beginning to establish their own rule outside and over against Rome.  Although John Hus was executed for heresy, John Wyclif, on the other hand, was protected by powerful allies.  Luther, too, found safety in his friend and protector, Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony.  Freedom to challenge the doctrinal stances of the Church provided the grounds for re-discovering the Gospel message.

In essence, the search for the true Church had begun in earnest.  In this quest, Luther challenges many of the presuppositions upon which ecclesial authority rests in the hope of returning to a way of life in line with the Word, which is through faith alone.  Luther’s understanding of the priesthood of believers is forged out of this struggle.  In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther rails against his opponents, stating:

The truth is turned against Christ, the office of the pope as the servant of servants is changed into the power of a ruler over rulers.  However, the victorious Christ at God’s right hand needs no vicar, for the ruler of the world in Heaven ‘sees, does, knows and is capable of all thing’ – without the pope.[7]

Luther seeks to unmask this “anti-Christ” and empower the true Church to live out of the freedom which only Christ gives.  This has radical implications for what the true Church looks like as it embodies the life of Christ in the world!  We are left to ask: “What then is the role of both the laity and the clergy?”

Amazingly, Luther states, “A Christian is a free master over all things and subject to no one.”[8]  This is not an autonomous freedom for each individual believer.  Rather, it is freedom to serve others with compassion.  As such, it can be ascertained that each believer plays a vital and important role in making known the Gospel, in accordance with the freedom that each believer receives through Christ.  That is why Luther can also state, “A Christian is a servant of all and subject to everyone.”[9]

In comparison to the use of ecclesial and political power in Luther’s day, Luther reminds the believers that those who want to be greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven will not lord it over others “as the Gentiles do.”  Instead, Christians employ power in light of the cross and the suffering of Christ.  Power is to be utilized for the betterment of others, not simply for our own benefit.  The shape of life for the priesthood of believers must always be Christocentric and cruciform.

God chooses to empower believers and to make God’s self known through Christians!  Luther contends, “Yes, He can probably do it alone, but He does not want to; He wants us to act with Him and honors us by carrying out His will with and through us.  If we do not desire this honor, He will help the poor by Himself.”[10]  This gifted responsibility is given to every Christian, not merely a select few.  Moreover, there is no hierarchal claim to authority among believers.  God is sovereign and we are each called to obedience.

However, Luther did not always question the authority of the pope.  In fact, upon his later reflection Luther termed himself as a “fierce papist” in his early career.  It is conceivable that his business trip to Rome to appeal to the pope concerning the Augustinian order had an indelible impact.  Luther found the moral decay of Christianity’s geo-political center to be absolutely horrific.  And, although Oberman posits that this did not lead Luther to “start to doubt whether the pope was indeed the vicar of Christ,”[11] that does not mean that it didn’t have lasting influence on his attitude toward the papacy.

The so-called “straw that broke the camel’s back” was the selling of indulgences.  Luther had increasingly come under the conviction that salvation was through Christ alone and by faith alone, not as a means of personal merit.  Indulgences undermined the biblical foundations of the Christian faith by placing humans in the place of God.  Only God could make salvation a reality, not the pope.

The doctrine of salvation and ecclesiology cannot be separated out in Luther’s understanding.  In fact, one, in some sense, constitutes the other.  Salvation is given to those who hear God’s Word and believe.  In this way, people are made part of the Body of Christ.  They are gathered together, participating in this shared life with God and one another.  This is the power of the Gospel, which makes Christ known to us through the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel is entirely necessary for salvation and the forming of the Church Body.  Luther writes, “God’s word cannot be without God’s people, and conversely, God’s people cannot be without God’s word.”[12]  Thus, those that are members of the communio sanctorum are also those that have received the Gospel and responded in belief and faith in Christ Jesus.  And, furthermore, where the true Church is there God’s Word will be found also!

God’s word is the Gospel that testifies to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  That is the very foundation of the Church and, by extension, the community of believers.  Without the Gospel, the Church does not exist.  Connecting Christ with the true Church, Luther proclaims:

Whoever seeks Christ must first find the church.  Now the church is not wood and stone but the group of people who believe in Christ.  Whoever seeks the church should join himself to them and observe what they teach, pray, and believe.  For they certainly have Christ among them.[13]

Thus, participation in the priesthood of believers entails connection with Christ and the Church, not autonomous individuality on a personal, spiritual quest.  Rather, the community of God is where the Word is found and the Word is where the community of God is found.

This distinction between salvation that comes from God through the Gospel and a cheap imitation offered by man establishes a dichotomy between the true and the false Church.  The priesthood of believers was only those that participated in the life of the true Church.  Scripture became the cornerstone upon which to judge what truly constituted the living Church.  Moreover, the validity of “tradition” (i.e., the councils, the papacy, etc.) was contingent upon its coherence with the Scriptural witness.

The papacy did not remain quietly idle
but in response constructed “three walls” to combat Luther’s barrage.  He contends that the papists have constructed a fortress unwilling to yield to any reform.  These three walls perpetually affirm the authority of the pope and thus have muted their own ears to the Gospel’s calling.

The “three walls” can be outlined.  First, spiritual matters trump temporal matters.  As such, the Church is not subject to the authority of “temporal rulers.”  Second, Scripture can only be interpreted correctly by the pope.  And, lastly, only the pope can convene a council.[14]  As a result, Luther’s attempt to restore the Church’s proper doctrine is undermined by the arguments offered by the papacy.

This debate intricately shapes and forms Luther’s conception of the priesthood of believers.  Deposing the papacy’s self-proclaimed infallibility led to a stronger emphasis on the communio sanctorum.  No longer could the pope, or any other ecclesial official, be allowed to operate beyond or outside of the community of believers.  After all, Christ alone was the Head of the Church.

In fact, Luther went so far as to deny ordination as a sacrament.  Of course, this was a radical equalization between clergy and laity.  This did not so much deny the important role of clergy, as much as, it promoted God’s call to all believers.  Sharing in that equilateral call suggested that everyone, including clergy, stood as equals before God.  If all believers have received this gift of priesthood, then what significance, if any, remains for clergy?

Luther posits both a general and specific call for all believers.  The general call consists of individual believers being initiated into the Body by faith through Christ.  Thus, everyone that comes to faith in Christ is a priest.  This is the general call to which all are invited to partake.  Luther asserts, “Faith alone is the true priestly office.  It permits no one else to take its place.  Therefore all Christian men are priests, all women priestesses, be they young or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, learned or unlearned  Here there is no difference, unless faith be unequal.”[15]

Among those that respond to this general call there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free.”  As such, the priesthood of believers can be seen to have equal responsibilities, though those responsibilities may differ from one to another.  “Faith” becomes the marker by which one is initiated and maintained as part of the priesthood of believers.  It is not dependent upon human will, but upon faithful obedience to the Gospel.

Early in Luther’s theological development, Luther strongly asserted this position of equanimity among believers.  Toward the end of his career, however, he promoted it less.  Although he was strongly opposed to the papacy, he could not entertain the chaos that no polity would inevitably create.  In fact, Luther continued to maintain a biblical notion of the bishop as necessary for the care of the Church.

As such, Luther does not negate the necessity of clergy.  To utilize the Body metaphor, each member of the Body has a unique role to fulfill.  Pastors and ministers represent a specific calling within the Body of Christ, but not as over and above the priesthood of believers.  Luther comments, “It is true that all Christians are priests, but not all are pastors.  To be a pastor one must be not only a Christian and a priest but must have an office and a field of work committed to him.  This call and command make pastors and preachers.”[16]  Due to the diversity within the Body not everyone can be expected to serve the same function within the Body.

Pastor and minister are roles entrusted to some within the community as representatives of the whole.  At the same time, it remains a specific call by which God draws out men and women to faithfully preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments.  Clergy do not possess a higher status but perform different functions within and from the Body.  It is a matter of vocation.  Thus, according to Bernhard Lohse, “…ordination was the effective transmission of the ministerial office” from the priesthood of believers to the ordinand.[17]

One of the arenas of conflict Rome’s and Luther’s picture of the priesthood centers upon the notion of sainthood.  The Church in Rome had developed an intricate system of sainthood.  It is reported that Luther became a monk because of a vow that he made to Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother, during a thunderstorm.  This notion portrays the elevated status that was often given to those individuals that demonstrated an elevated life of faith.  Saintliness, as such, was not readily available to everyone but was a special status of a few.  Although Luther initially held to similar views of sainthood, he eventually came to see saintliness encompassing a larger group, namely the priesthood of all believers.  Oberman writes, “It was only after his reformation breakthrough that he discovered all believers to be saints.”[18]

As noted earlier, there is no division among the believers in so far as degrees of faith.  Yet, even Luther would claim that this too is not a means for division because faith is a gift from God, not derivative of human effort!  Although Luther might not go so far in his thinking, it logically leads to this point and is not in opposition to it.  Thus, sainthood is available to all, not as a works-righteousness accomplishment, as the work of God to which those who believe respond in faithful obedience to God’s call!

In conclusion, the priesthood of believers, thanks to the reformers, is radically altered from its Medieval perspective.  The priesthood is not a select few individuals that enjoy the privileges of ordination.  The pope, or any leader other than Christ, does not constitute the Church.  Instead, it is a free gift of God’s grace to those who respond to the Gospel through the Holy Spirit.  The communio sanctorum is constituted by the Word as a people gathered together, living in faithful obedience to God’s commands.  In the midst of that, some are called by God to preach, teach, and serve in and from the community of believers, whose Head is Christ.

[1] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006,, 53.

[2] Ibid, 53.

[3] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale

University Press, 2006, 58.

[4] Ibid, 74.

[5] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 57.

[6] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 55.

[7] Ibid, 43.

[8] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 78.

[9] Ibid, 78.

[10] Ibid, 80.

[11] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 149.

[12] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 281.

[13] Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966, 287.

[14] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 289.

[15] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 290.

[16] Ibid, 290.

[17] Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development. Fortress Press Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 295.

[18] Oberman, Heiko Augustinus, and Eileen Schwarzbart. Luther: Man between God and the Devil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006, 93.

Flash Fire: Communicating Care

I had arrived back at the church to make sure everything was being set up for the family to arrive.  The family had stayed at the graveside, while I went on ahead.  Shortly after I arrived, one of the ladies helping with the dinner notified me that she had just received a call from Pastor Darrik.  He said they were running behind because they were dealing with a “flash fire.”  It was a particularly windy day and we had had a very dry summer… perfect conditions for a fire.

After hearing the news, I mentioned the situation to a man that went to our church and was law enforcement.  He jumped up and told me to come along.  We hopped in his cruiser and sped through town.  We weren’t just cruising… we were flying!  I had never experienced adrenaline on this level before.  We made it to the scene in record time.  As we drew close, however, we noticed an absence of smoke… we noticed a total absence of anything resembling fire.

About that time my cell phone rang.  When I picked it up, the lady from the church that had notified me about the “flash fire” said, “Levi, you can turn around and come back.”  I was definitely puzzled.  I asked her what was going on.  She bashfully announced that it had not been a “flash fire” but a “flat tire.”  It seems the wind had made pastor’s words hard to understand!

Communicating clearly can be difficult, even in the best of circumstances.  There are plenty of hindrances and roadblocks that shut down clear communication.  It is true when we are communicating with friends, family, or God.  Not being able to clearly hear the messages we need to can dramatically impact where we end up.  It can be the difference between “flash fire” and “flat tire!”

There are many note-worthy situations that can hinder our ability to hear others.  We each have our own shortcomings that often render us unable to truly sit and listen.  It might be busyness.  Tasks, rather than relationships, can take top priority.  It might possibly be riches.  Our material possessions consume us to the point of neglecting others.  Or, it may even be something like fear.  We are wary of what God may call us to do.  So, rather than risk being uncomfortable in God’s presence, we settle for putting God on hold and not really listening.

Vibrant relationships are difficult, if not impossible, to maintain without the willingness to pay attention, to hear, and to acknowledge the message someone is trying to tell us.  Communication is not only a verbal process.  Listening involves “hearing” what others are telling us through their body language, actions, language, and attitude.  Sometimes we are so quick to tell others how to fix things; we neglect to listen to their stories and to understand who they are.

One of the greatest pieces of sage advice I have ever received states: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Communicating the Gospel is not merely conveying information; it is about caring for the needs of the broken and hopeless.  God sees, hears, and knows the suffering that people endure.  Christ entered into that very suffering with us.  As followers of Christ, we are called to suffer with others.  Let us be those that “hear” the cry of those that are destitute and serve them as Christ has served us!

Jonah 1:1-17 Sermon

          Ken and Dana had been married for a little over 30 years.  On the outside, they seemed to have a strong marriage.  But, on the inside, it was a different story.  Ken was emotionally and mentally abusive to Dana and their children.  Fear was a normal part of their everyday existence.  Dana and the children never knew when Ken might get angry, even over the smallest thing.

Dana constantly had to make sure everything was in order, clean, cooked, and prepared whenever Ken would get home.  She would often hide their financial situation from him for fear of inciting his wrath.  Ken was a compulsive spender.  Switching from hobby to hobby, Ken would splurge large amounts of money on the latest equipment.  Dana tried keeping the check book balanced, but Ken would become quite upset when the bank account was low.

Ken had even been caught in an affair.  Although Dana had left with the children for a short time, she eventually reconciled with him.  Shortly after this point, he decided to go back to college.  Dana worked to put him through school and support the children.  After only two years back in the work force, Ken decided to quit his job and remain unemployed.  Shortly after, Dana found out that Ken was again having an affair.  After 30 years of trying, she had had enough.

The divorce was anything but cordial.  Ken was going to make sure Dana paid.  She didn’t have a college degree and couldn’t afford much of anything.  Ken had taken the money out of their savings account, so she was at his mercy to survive month-to-month.  Dana had no money, had lost her home, and the lawyers cost more than she was making each month.  Despite treating her like dirt for so many years, it seemed like he was coming out on top.  To Dana, Ken embodied wickedness.          

In Jonah’s day, wickedness had a name: Nineveh.  It was a city of atrocities.  The capital of Assyria, it was a brutal and vicious enemy to both Israel and Judah, Jonah’s people.  In fact, Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian army and Judah nearly faced the same fate.  The Assyrians would destroy cities and lead their captives away with hooks in their cheeks.  They weren’t exactly the type of neighbors you wanted to loan your lawn mower.

The prophet Nahum (3:1-4) noted just how evil and cruel the Ninevites were.  He prophesied against Nineveh and described it in this way:

Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! 2 The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! 3 Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses — 4 all because of the wanton lust of a prostitute, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft.


In Jonah’s mind, there was absolutely no worse place to be than in Nineveh!  It was absolutely evil!

The Word of God comes to Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”  The son of Amittai, meaning “truthfulness” or “faithfulness,” is called to proclaim the Word of God against Nineveh’s evil.  God is concerned with the disaster that will befall Nineveh, if it continues down its current path.

Jonah was not thrilled to have received this assignment.  God was calling him to go to the city of his mortal enemy!  Jonah wastes no time in “going.”  However, he begins traveling in the exact opposite direction: Tarshish.  He runs from God’s call and tries to escape the responsibility that has been given him.  In Jonah’s mind, the “grass was greener” in Tarshish.  Tarshish was a paradise, an attractive alternative to God’s command.

Thinking he has come up with a brilliant plan to escape God’s call, Jonah goes down to the port in Joppa and goes down into a ship.  The ship sets off across the Mediterranean.  Displeased with Jonah’s decision, God hurls a mighty wind at the sea.  Chaos engulfs the sea, threatening the very ship Jonah is riding.  The sailors are greatly distressed and begin sacrificing the cargo to appease the gods.  Despite the danger, Jonah is in the belly of the ship sleeping.

The captain finds Jonah fast asleep.  “Are you out of your mind!?”  The captain can’t believe Jonah is not praying to his god.  He commands him to begin praying so that the gods may yet have mercy.  Isn’t it a bit ironic that the one acquainted with the true God of the universe is found fast asleep while everyone is in peril?  Jonah had been lulled asleep and it is only after the captain wakes him up and the sailors question him that Jonah begins to proclaim YHWH as sovereign Lord of heaven, sea, and land!

Perhaps we have all journeyed to Tarshish.  We have heard God’s call, but we ignored it and turned to run in the opposite direction.  Our way seemed more exciting, more in line with our desires.  The Church is all too familiar, we are all too familiar, with having been lulled asleep in the ship of convenience, comfort, and consumerism.

Like Jonah, we often don’t realize the disaster that has befallen us and others.  Our eyes are closed to the world around us as we do our best to make our way to Tarshish.  After all, it is easy to love those who love us.  It is manageable to forgive those who are most like us.  It is possible to give our resources to those who are trying to help themselves.

But, in the same breath we dismiss the call to love our enemies, to do good to those who persecute us, and to bless those who curse us.  Like Jonah, we just as soon let our enemies get what is coming to them.  We can recite Jesus’ command to love our enemies, but we celebrate the death of known terrorist leaders.  We hear God’s call to serve the poor in our communities, yet churches move to “better” neighborhoods so that we might be appealing and safe.  We know God has called us to be light… and that often entails walking into the darkest regions of our world that most need that Light!  When we hear the command to “go,” we sometimes react like Jonah… we board the nearest ship for Tarshish.

Recall our friend Dana.  Nearly six months after her separation with her husband, Ken became extremely sick.  He was experiencing excruciating pain in his back and was rendered nearly immobile.  Nobody was there to take care of him; his friends were more interested in his money than helping him.

Dana still felt great anger toward Ken.  Who could blame her!?  Yet, God placed it upon Dana’s heart to take care of Ken.  It was one of the most difficult decisions she ever had to make, especially as everyone else was telling her that she was crazy for helping him.  Dana, however, felt sure that God was calling her to do this difficult task.  For the next few months, she cared for Ken, making sure that everything that needed to be done was done.  In this, she hoped that God’s message of love would finally find root.

We like to think we might be faithful to God’s call, like Dana.  Yet, if we are truly honest, many times we more closely resemble Jonah.  When faced with a call that is distasteful or difficult, we turn the other way.  We are fine with doing the bare minimum to call ourselves Christian, but we like doing so without the Cross.  Dying to self is not a popular option.

Jonah’s decision to run away from God’s call led him down to Joppa, down below deck, and, finally, down to the belly of a great fish.  Chaos had ensued and impacted more than just Jonah.  There’s a trend here.  Jonah’s disobedience leads him down, down, down… it is the place of God’s judgment.  Yet, even in God’s judgment, mercy is extended to Jonah.  God’s vehicle of judgment becomes Jonah’s way of salvation.  He is swallowed by the fish and remains there for three days and three nights.

Wake up, O Sleeper!  Wake up, O Church!  We may have been headed on the way to Tarshish, but God is pursuing us.  The boat we are riding may be tossing and turning.  It may seem like we are sinking fast, waiting for one more breaker to capsize our ship.  Our running has brought chaos into our lives and the lives of others… we might think that we are beyond saving.  But, praise God that God’s judgment is not the final word.  God’s judgment intends to bring salvation!

Although our story follows Jonah, he is not the model of faith for us.  Rather, it is the pagan sailors that set us an example.  In response to God’s judgment, the sailors greatly feared the Lord, offered sacrifices to the Lord and made vows.  They are the model for us from this story about an appropriate response to what God is doing among us.

We may find ourselves wrestling with a difficult call that God has given us.  It may be that we are running from that call.  Tarshish may be luring us in the opposite direction.  We may be experiencing the storm of God’s judgment.

Wherever it is that we find ourselves this morning, let us respond in faith and trust in the One, True God.  Entrust ourselves to God’s direction and calling.  Sacrifice our lives as a living sacrifice to God Almighty; offer our whole selves to God.  Finally, with God’s help, let us commit ourselves to God alone.  Let us devote ourselves to the Lord’s call upon our lives, both as individuals and as the Church.  Let us pray.

Ministering Cross-Culturally: An Incarnational Model for Personal Relationships by John Lingenfelter

            The underlying argument of the book is that each person is a unique blending of cultures.  Every person makes decisions that are largely convergent from these cultural biases.  Conflict arises from situations where cultural norms are violated.  The tension that is produced can be lessened or alleviated by being aware of one’s own culture and the presuppositions of other cultures.

Lingenfelter calls for an “incarnational” ministry, which he refers to as “150% persons.”  This demands persons accommodating and adapting to cultural norms of other cultures so that communication might happen between people.  Understanding the expectations of other cultures is essential to relating well.  This can be communicated in a number of ways: language, temporality, territoriality, exploitation, association, subsistence, bisexuality (conduct for males and females), learning, play, and defense.  Grasping these fundamental elements can help one comprehend the values of the culture.

With the exception of Jesus, nobody can fully embody another culture.  We may come very close to being totally acculturated, but we are often so shaped by our own culture that we never fully embrace the foreign culture in which we minister.  Despite this fact, Lingenfelter asserts that we are to adapt to other cultures so that we might be able to communicate the Gospel in ways that will be received.

Much of the miscommunication and tension that is experienced in cross-cultural ministry results from a lack of understanding our own culture and that of the culture we are trying to reach.  For instance, in America we are very time-conscious whereas other parts of the world are event-oriented.  The result can be frustration due to differing value systems at play.

Having personally experienced some of these tensions or seen them in others, I can readily identify with Lingenfelter’s position.  Cross-cultural ministry can be made more difficult when people’s expectations are not the same.  That is typically why the number one rule for mission trips is always: “Be flexible!”  Missionaries and missions team leaders will usually instruct their teams to take their cues from the native people and culture.  We are there to serve, not be served.  This inevitably means that we must adapt.

Lingenfelter incorporates a number of sources in his work.  Primarily, the author uses personal experience to begin the discussion concerning cross-cultural ministry and interpersonal relationships.  This is the testing ground for Lingenfelter’s particular vision for intercultural mission and relationships.  This is a valuable and pertinent way to form and assess the validity of various theories of intercultural ministry.  If the model does not hold up to observable tests, then it is a faulty or incomplete theory.  However, on the negative side, personal experience can also be marred by one’s own shortcomings and biases.  Although I do not feel Lingenfelter is unfair in his assessment of things, it might be the case that my own cultural bias is too similar to his own to not be persuaded by the underlying logic.

Lingenfelter’s other resources included works concerning theology, psychology, and cross-cultural ministry.  The sources were fairly recent material.  However, the material on cross-cultural ministry and psychology are a bit dated.  It would have been appropriate to have more sources to back up the substantial claims that are being made.  For one, psychology and our approach to cross-cultural ministry has drastically changed even within the previous decade!  Citing more contemporary works, especially for psychology, would significantly bolster Lingenfelter’s assertions.

The theology resources were fairly recent and were written by notable names in their field.  This was a positive aspect of Lingenfelter’s used sources.  However, the scarce few resources used suggest that this particular work may be limited in its Biblical scope.  That’s not to say that the author did not reference Scripture a great deal.  He does.  But, that does not necessarily entail that it is a well informed argument and is less likely prone to eisegesis otherwise avoidable.

The first possible cultural conflict revolves around the issue of time.  Some cultures are time-oriented and others are event-oriented.  Time-oriented is concerned with punctuality, efficient use of time, goal-directed activities, and dates and history.  Event-oriented is concerned with details of the event, full consideration of problems until resolved, relaxed on time constraints to complete something, completing an event is the reward, and focused on the present rather than past or future.

Judgment is the second tension point discussed.  Lingenfelter divides “judgment” between dichotomistic thinking and holistic thinking.  Dichotomistic thinkers see things in absolute categories, emphasizes being right, and are concerned with patterns and systematic organization of information and experiences.  Holistic thinkers are more “open-ended”, does not like being confined to one role or category, and information and experiences are disorganized and not necessarily connected.

Crisis orientation and Noncrisis orientation is the next tension described.  Crisis orientation expects crisis, plans accordingly, seeks quick resolution, follows a pre-planned procedure, and looks for experts for solutions.  Noncrisis orientation downplays the possibility of crisis, focuses on actual experience, holds off on making decisions, looks at all of the options, and is wary of “expert” advice.

Tension concerning goals occupies the following chapter.  Task orientation versus person orientation can cause great distress.  Task orientation, which is our typical modus operandi, focuses on task completion.  Person orientation tends to value the people or groups who are working together over the completion of tasks.

Tensions concerning self-worth stem from achievement focus against status focus.  Status is something that is “ascribed,” whereas, achievement is something that is “acquired.”  Status deals with someone’s connection through birth or rank.  Achievement deals with accomplishments attained by a person.

There are two ways to potentially deal with vulnerability: concealment or willingness to expose.  Concealment protects one’s self-image at all costs.  It is difficult for these individuals to receive criticism or risk failure.  Quality of performance is essential for such individuals.  The other side of the spectrum is just the opposite.  They are willing to risk failure, work to complete an event, and are open to alternative points of view and criticism.

The book demonstrates the proposed thesis.  The combination of Lingenfelter’s experiences in the field and the basic argument, supported by his sources, are coherent and seem to be true in my own personal experience with cross-cultural ministry.  Furthermore, it is generally true between people that are working together and experience conflict or tension due to opposing values, even within the same or similar cultures.

I like the book because it provides a simplified way to assess cultural bias and to better understand what makes people “tick.”  In moments of tension or discomfort working with others, it helps highlight the core issue.  The author states that cultures are either moral or immoral.  I would argue a slightly different understanding.  Culture is a “good” thing.  It seeks to create order within the world, which is a Divine imperative for Creation.  Culture becomes “sinful” when there is an improper arrangement of good things.  Conflict of cultures does not necessarily entail either party is “sinful.”



Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem… Revisited by Jonathan Bonk

Thesis of the Book

            The affluence of Western missionaries creates a communicatory and relational barrier between missionaries and those to whom they serve with the Gospel.  The result is a Gospel misunderstood or not received by indigenous populations.  There is a dissonance between the missionaries’ “medium” and “message.”  Bonk seeks to uncover the costs of affluence for missionaries, establishing guidelines for living as “righteous rich.”

Evaluation of Sources Used

            Bonk uses a plethora of sources, which definitely helps the case he is trying to make.  Initially, Bonk uses financial sources to show the relative wealth of Western nations versus other nations (i.e., Third World Countries).  Since many of the missionary agencies are in Western countries and are being sent to impoverished nations, this helps us see the distance between affluent and impoverished countries.  Although the Gross Domestic Product is difficult to accurately assess, it does provide a general overview of wealth.

This first chapter’s sources concerning missionary affluence were probably the weakest.  Although Western countries are affluent when compared to Third World countries, that does not then entail that missionaries are affluent when they come from the West.  In some contexts, they might not be affluent.  And, supporting the argument on the fact that one missionary family received $60,000 per year (which might be considered substantial in America), does not then mean that every missionary is allotted the same.  In fact, it is quite possible that a missionary would be on a poverty level in a particular country in which they serve.

However, Bonk’s basic assertion that there is a gap between the affluent and the impoverished carries weight, especially when considering missionaries, even with a meager salary, serving in Third World contexts.  Furthermore, many of the sources in this section were close to thirty or more years old.  The financial state of things could have, though not necessarily, changed since then.

Bonk traces the history of missionaries’ wrestling with affluence through primary sources.  Many of these sources are from the 19th century into the early 20th century.  Although there are a few contemporary sources employed, they probably should have been integrated more to show that there is still an existing situation.

The theological section was good.  Minimal commentary was made; Bonk allowed Scripture to speak (without merely proof texting).  The final three chapters were written by noted theologians.  Justo L. González focus on historical theology strongly supplemented Bonk’s material position of the “righteous rich.”

Development of the Main Idea

            Bonk begins by showing the overall affluence of Western civilization in comparison to non-Western nations.  Using various instruments, such as GDP, Bonk makes strong case that affluence is an ever-expanding chasm between Western and non-Western nations.  It is not merely growing; it is exponentially widening.

Since most mission agencies are stationed in the Western nations, many of the missionaries from these agencies experience this gap firsthand.  Although missionaries may not be wealthy in a Western context, they often are very affluent when entering foreign nations.  This is especially true of Third World countries.  Bonk recognizes the many positive things that affluence can provide for missionaries and their families.  One of the greatest arguments for affluence is longevity in the mission field.  However, the Gospel is often misunderstood as primarily a way to acquire wealth or the missionaries are perceived as hypocritical to the Gospel message when the medium and message do not line.  The result is a tremendous barrier between the missionary and the indigenous people.

Bonk then looks at Scripture’s stance on wealth and poverty.  Walking through Old and New Testaments, he highlights the overall importance of stewardship of God’s resources.  God definitely sides with the impoverished, especially where the rich take advantage of them.  However, riches can also be a blessing from God!  Scriptures notes the difficulty of being righteous and rich.  The more goods one has, the more opportunity for temptation exists.  Yet, resources can be employed in godly ways for the benefit of those less fortunate.  In this way, we serve God by serving others.  Riches are not ours to hoard, but to bless others.  Bonk concludes that it is difficult, but possible to be righteous and rich.

Christopher J. H. Wright and Justo L. González argue a similar position for the righteous rich.  Wright frames his position in light of the Old Testament traditions, showing how riches bring both blessing and curse.  Ultimately, God is Creator and we are stewards of the good gifts we are given by God.  Losing sight of God’s place as Lord over everything usually ends with the rich being judged for their oppression of the poor.  González frames his argument by first looking at Acts and describing the partnership the Church enjoys with God and with each other.  The resources each one has are gifts from God that are to be shared with one another and especially with the poor.  In his final chapter, the issue of riches is looked at for the sub-apostolic church.  Shortly after the first century, writings (i.e., Didache) were composed to help the early Church discern proper living as a community of believers.  Following the tradition of the Church in Acts, the sub-apostolic Church condemns close-fisted living.  Instead, Christians are to be generous with their resources as a reflection of Christ’s generosity to us!

Personal Evaluation of the Book

            I found the book challenging.  I work within the context of the American church, which is very affluent.  There is a temptation for many pastors, including myself, to pursue “bigger and better.”  Mega-churches are in abundance in many of our cities.  Large incomes and benefits packages are more about thriving than surviving.  Some churches have abandoned the urban poor for more suitable and safe places to serve.  There is a great deal of temptation to climb the ladder and play the political game of Church hierarchy.  Yet, this is not an Incarnational model.

Bonk’s evaluation of the effects of affluence on communicating the Gospel are sobering.  Riches have a way of numbing us to the plight of the poor and the marginalized.  How can we communicate the Gospel to those people if we cannot identify with them and proclaim the Gospel in ways that speak into their context?  If mission agencies are a strong secularizing force within the world, we have to ask if the Church in the Western world is doing the same within our context.  Are we merely re-packaging culture under a thin veneer of Christianity?  Consumerism, rather than a cruciform life, often governs us.

Riches create a great temptation for us.  It is easy to become blind to its allure.  Yet, I believe that God is able to sanctify those resources and our desires.  There can be a “righteous rich” person, but one must be extremely careful.  The medium and the message cannot be separated!  We are blessed so that we might be a blessing and so glorify God among the nations.

Depiction of God in Genesis 1 and 2

In Genesis 1, begins with the ruach of God hovering over the waters of pre-Creation.  The tohu wa bohu and the waters of pre-Creation represent chaos and the lack of life.  There is no “space” in which life can happen or be sustained.  Yet, God breathes into the chaos, separating waters from waters, and opening space (day 1-3 and 7?) in which life can be sustained.  God is Creator and Sustainer.  God is not a God of chaos but of order.  After each day of creating, God blesses that which was made.

On days 4-6, God fills the space that has been created.  In each of these spaces, God empowers part of the creation to “govern” over the space (i.e., Sun, moon and stars govern the seasons and day and night).  God creates humanity and sets them to govern over the entirety of Creation.  Although God is shown to have all the power, God empowers the Creation and shares power with the Creation.  The potential of Creation is not complete.  Rather, God invites the Creation to participate in fulfilling that potential.  This suggests that God desires response from the Creation.

Everything that God has created is good, nothing is bad.  God does not create evil or chaos, but creates order and proclaims it very good (blesses it).  The life of God is generative.  Thus, God’s command to the creation, “be fruitful and multiply”, reflects the character and nature of God.  Although the Creation cannot create ex nihilo, it is able to “create” its own kind (likeness).  Again, God shares God’s power with the Creation, which blesses and sustains life.

God blesses the Sabbath and makes it holy.  The first thing that humanity sees God doing in Genesis 1 is resting, not creating.  God invites the Creation to rest from its labors with its Creator.  God is not simply about accomplishing tasks, but about relating with God’s good Creation.

In Genesis 1, God is pictured as transcendent and, in many ways, separate from the Creation.  God stands outside of the system.  Genesis 2 paints a different portrait.  God is very much intimately and immanently involved with the Creation.  God breathes life into the man’s nostrils and formed all the living creatures from the ground, like a potter molding clay.

God brings the animals before Adam to see what he might name them.  If God does know what Adam is going to name the animals, yet acts like there is real freedom for Adam to choose, then God has set the world up in deceptive ways (the appearance of freedom without the reality is illusory).  But, if God truly doesn’t know what Adam will decide and God is truthful, then we must re-conceive God’s omniscience.

God knows everything that is knowable, which means that the future is not something that is knowable as a set of propositions.  The future is not knowable because it does not yet exist and is not knowable.  God truly waits to see what Adam will name the animals because God really doesn’t know!  God gives true freedom for decision (and consequence) to the created order.  God invites the creation to participate in what God is doing in the world.

In order for there to be freedom for humanity, there has to be the option to choose opposite of God’s desires.  Thus, God creates the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  It is still part of God’s good creation.  Within that good creation, God provides boundaries and great freedom within those boundaries (“eat of any tree, except this one”).  God outlines the consequences of disobedience.  But, in providing the tree of knowledge of good and evil, God also creates freedom for humanity to really choose to live in obedience and love God.  God’s love is not coercive.

In Genesis 1, God creates and proclaims it as “good.”  In Genesis 2 there is a reversal.  God says that it is “not good.”  Man is alone and God views it as “not good.”  That does not mean that God’s creation is bad but simply incomplete.  It is “not good” because Adam’s situation does not fully reflect God’s character and nature.  Thus, God creates Adam a help partner: woman.  Man was created for community because the very character and nature of God is communal!


Genesis 22: Akedah – “The Binding of Isaac”

Although Isaac is not necessarily a major character in the narratives of Genesis, he is still an integral part.  Abraham and Sarah had been unable to have children.  Sarah’s womb was barren.  And, although they had a son, Ishmael, through Sarah’s handmaiden, God told Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son and the promise would be fulfilled through him.

The promise did not come to fruition immediately.  In fact, Abraham and Sarah were well beyond child-bearing years when God visited them again.  God assures them that they will have a child within a year’s time.  Abraham is silent and Sarah laughs at the impossibility of having a child in their old age.  Yet, that is exactly what happens.  Isaac is born!  Isaac embodies the promise from God to Abraham.  Abraham’s son is very precious to him.

Genesis 22 is initiated by God’s desire to test Abraham.  God calls to Abraham and commands him to take Isaac and to sacrifice him.  There is no protest but simple obedience from Abraham.  Isaac is old enough to understand that they have not adequately prepared for the journey.  Upon asking his father about a sacrifice, Abraham simply states that God will provide a lamb for the sacrifice.  It is the picture of unclouded faith.

Abraham had seen God’s ability to provide in the past.  After all, Isaac was a miracle by God alone.  Abraham and Sarah’s bodies were as good as dead.  They were unable to fulfill God’s promise on their own.  Despite the overwhelming odds, God provided the elderly couple with a son.  That experience confirmed Abraham’s faith and trust in what God was asking him to do.  Thus, Abraham obeyed without reservation.

The underlying basis for Abraham’s trust is God’s faithfulness.  After all, God had specifically told Abraham that it would be through Isaac that the promise would be fulfilled.  Although we can merely speculate at Abraham’s thoughts about sacrificing his son, we can clearly see that God is powerful enough to fulfill his promise, even if Isaac is sacrificed.  God has fully demonstrated the divine power and goodness.  Abraham moves ahead in obedience.

When Abraham and Isaac arrived at the mountain, the preparations for the sacrifice were made.  Isaac was bound and placed on top of the wood.  Abraham grabbed the knife and was prepared to plunge it into his son.  At this moment, an angel appears and stops Abraham from killing Isaac.  God tells Abraham that he now knows that Abraham is faithful.

This suggests God limits God’s knowledge of the future or that the future is not something that is not fully knowable because it does not yet exist.  There is a real freedom of decision for humanity.  Thus, God tests Abraham to see how he would act when asked to give back to God that which is most precious to him.  Abraham is shown to be faithful.

God values human decision.  Abraham has the capacity to choose not to sacrifice Isaac.  Yet, it is his difficult decision that ultimately proves to God that Abraham is faithful to him alone.  It seems like God desires to know if God’s people have a singleness of heart for God alone!  God has created the cosmos in such a way that there are real choices with real consequences.  God is far from being a divine tyrant.  Rather, God invites response and waits to see the result.

It is at this point that Abraham notices a ram that is caught in a nearby bush.  Abraham takes the ram and sacrifices it to God.  Abraham names the place “The Lord Will Provide.”  That is the theological “kernel of truth” for this passage.  God is shown to be faithful and to provide in ways that might not be readily apparent in the beginning.  This is a lesson that Abraham has learned well in his journey with God.  Our assertion should be: “God’s grace is enough!”