Saturday, February 2, 2013

Living the Good Life

“…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”   St. John 10:10

This brief passage from the 10th chapter of John seems to be getting quite a bit of buzz as of late. Indeed, I would venture to say that it has become a staple of methobapticostal Christians in their ‘scripture from a hat game’. Yes, you know the game of which I speak. People pick and choose bits and pieces of scripture that support their agenda and throw the rest out. I am not saying this to be snide or condescending, I merely speak the truth. John 3:16 for example. Or how about Luke 23:42-43? John 10:10 is no exception. Countless souls are being seduced by pop Christianity today. The likes of [insert your favorite pop-evangelist here] are casting a dark shadow over catholic Christians, and more treacherously, the Gospel. We are “losing the game”, as many have been wont to say. Why is that? If you answered, “…a misunderstanding of grace” then I believe that you answered correctly.  

Have you ever read a book by Max Lucado? I used to love to read his books. They seemed so spiritually fulfilling; an ostensibly stark contrast to the aridness of Lutheran orthodoxy which in the past seemed all but dead to me. I was always surprised at how his books could capture me and speak right to my heart. Then one day I was reading Come Thirsty and something strange happened. I still felt thirsty. Now this was peculiar. I never read a book of his I didn’t like. Why was this different? Why did I feel empty? Something was absent…the means of grace.  Sure, he talked about grace all throughout the book, but what suddenly became glaringly absent from all of his books was the means in which we receive this grace. This was a most startling revelation for me and what still perplexes me today is how I could have overlooked such a simple yet extraordinary part of my faith.

This brings me back to John chapter 10. What is this life that Christ is speaking of? Most Christians, yes even Lutherans, would say that this means living a life full of joy and happiness, knowing that we have been saved by grace through faith in Christ. If you are sad, depressed, angry, poor, downtrodden, etc. then you are not living the abundant life! Christians are being taught today that you can have a spectacular life on this side of eternity if you just pray hard enough. Ask and you shall receive.1 If you are all of the things I just mentioned then you must not have faith! Why else would you not be happy? This, my friends, is the most pernicious work of the devil.

As Lutherans, we believe, teach, and confess that this abundant life is a life lived in Christ through Word and Sacrament.  Christ is our one mediator with the Father, and it is through Him and Him alone that we are brought to eternal life. St. Paul tells us

“ For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,  that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love,  may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,  and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”2

Christians are baptized in Christ3, therefore Christ dwells in us through the Holy Spirit.4 Through baptism, we have been incorporated into Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, becoming co-heirs of His eternal kingdom, which is not of this world. Apart from baptism, we are dead in sin and transgression. The only life that we would have would be a life of sin and death. However, because of our baptism we have been brought back to life, forgiven, justified. Truly we have been “born again”, daily drowning the old Adam and rising anew.

Yet God knew that we feeble creatures would still have to struggle with sin, and we would continually be in need of reconciliation in order to live. This brings us to the altar where Christ sits upon His throne under the species of bread and wine. We kneel at His mercy seat, partaking of His true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”5

Here again, Christ speaks of a life of grace, which we receive through the Sacrament of the Altar. He has given us this spiritual food for our sustenance.  We receive His body and blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation. What a comfort that is for all sinners! I always say that the Eucharist is what keeps me Christian. Not in any other of the great religions of the world does God come to us in such a profound way.

Back to Lucado. Here is the synopsis of his latest book Grace: More Than WeDeserve, Greater Than We Imagine:

We talk as though we understand the term. The bank gives us a grace period. The seedy politician falls from grace. Musicians speak of a gracenote. We describe an actress as gracious, a dancer as graceful. We use the word for hospitals, baby girls, kings, and premeal prayers. We talk as though we know what grace means.

But do we really understand it? Have we settled for wimpy grace? It politely occupies a phrase in a hymn, fits nicely on a church sign. Never causes trouble or demands a response. When asked, “Do you believe in grace?” who could say no?

Max Lucado asks a deeper question: Have you been changed by grace? Shaped by grace?  Strengthened by grace? Emboldened by grace? Softened by grace? Snatched by the nape of your neck and shaken to your senses by grace?

God’s grace has a drenching about it. A wildness about it. A white-water, riptide, turn-you-upside-downness about it. Grace comes after you. It rewires you. From insecure to God secure. From regret riddled to better-because-of-it. From afraid to die to ready to fly.
Grace is the voice that calls us to change and then gives us the power to pull it off.

Let’s make certain grace gets you.

This nebulous and seemingly innocuous synopsis is so inaccurate in more ways than we can address today, but it highlights my point: Where can we find this “grace”?  It's as if it is some kind of fairy dust that you can gain access to by opening up the deep recesses of your heart and calling out to God. My question is, how do people who believe such ever know that they have received grace? Most would claim that they can just feel it. No thanks. My feelings and emotions betray me each and every day. Why on earth would I ever trust a “religious feeling” I get and call that grace!?

This is such a radical departure from the orthodox catholic faith and I cry foul! I believe that Article XIII (VII)  of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession sums it up quite sufficiently:

3] If we call Sacraments rites which have the command of God, and to which the promise of grace has been added, it is easy to decide what are properly Sacraments. For rites instituted by men will not in this way be Sacraments properly so called. For it does not belong to human authority to promise grace…4] Therefore Baptism, the Lord's Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly Sacraments. For these rites have God's command and the promise of grace, which is peculiar to the New Testament. For when we are baptized, when we eat the Lord's body, when we are absolved, our hearts must be firmly assured that God truly forgives us 5] for Christ's sake. And God, at the same time, by the Word and by the rite, moves hearts to believe and conceive faith, just as Paul says, Romans 10:17: Faith cometh by hearing. But just as the Word enters the ear in order to strike our heart, so the rite itself strikes the eye, in order to move the heart. The effect of the Word and of the rite is the same, as it has been well said by Augustine that a Sacrament is a visible word, because the rite is received by the eyes, and is, as it were, a picture of the Word, signifying the same thing as the Word…6

Christ died so that we might have life and live it abundantly. For orthodox Lutherans this means that we should with all due diligence believe, teach, and confess that the abundant life in which Christ spoke of can be found within the church where the Gospel is preached in spirit and in truth, and the most holy Sacraments are rightly administered, for there we will receive grace from God. Our consciences need not be burdened for God gave us the gift of grace through simple means: His Word, water, bread, and wine. The next time you stand at the doors of His Holy House you should see three signs of life: a pulpit, a font, and an altar. There you will find grace. There Christ will offer freely forgiveness, life, and salvation. Now that’s what I would call a life worth living.
1.        John 16:23, 2. Ephesians 3:14, 3. Galatians 3:27, 4. Romans 8:10, 5. John 6:53-58, 6. Ap. AC: 3-5, Concordia pg. 184

My name is Dagan Siepert, 25 years of age, and I am currently serving as Kantor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, LCMS, in Denton Texas. I recently graduated from the University of North Texas in December 2012 and I plan to begin seminary training at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne Indiana.

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