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The Election Controversy: Outbreak

Here is the heart of the Election Controversy in 19th century America, a conflict that divided brother from brother and caused C.F.W. Walther pain and grief near his life’s end.  Join us to understand better what was at stake in the conflict, what the sides were, and how conflict was handled for better or for worse.

Resources for further reading include:

Predestination by C.F.W. Walther

All Glory to God by C.F.W. Walther

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Regular Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz

Episode: 94

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The Election Controversy: Luther to the Age of Orthodoxy

Join us for the first in a multi-part series on the Election Controversy in American Lutheranism, a struggle that had its roots in Reformation-era disputes about free will, Scripture’s clarity, and God’s election of grace. We look at the basics of the doctrine of election or predestination, Luther’s dispute with Erasmus, and the developments during Lutheran Orthodoxy that brought so much contention to American Lutherans centuries later.

Resources for further reading include:

Bound Choice, Election, and Wittenberg Theological Method by Robert Kolb

On Creation and Predestination by Johann Gerhard

Predestination by C.F.W. Walther

The Election Controversy Among Lutherans in the Twentieth Century by John Brenner

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Regular Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz

Episode: 90

Join our Facebook group Word Fitly Posting to discuss this episode or any other topic. Follow us on Twitter: @wordfitly. Send us a message: [email protected] Subscribe to the podcast: RSS Feed, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcasting app.

Trinity Sunday: Romans 11:33-36

The epistle reading for Trinity Sunday begins with the conclusion. Romans 11:33-36 forms the concluding thought of the section beginning in Romans 9. Liturgically speaking, the emphasis is on the nature and attributes of God, which come into focus on Trinity Sunday. However, understanding Paul’s point here means first having a clearer picture of the context.

Why did some out of Israel believe while many continued to reject the Gospel? Paul addresses this very question throughout Romans 9-11. They had the promises and were sons of Israel according to the flesh. If anyone on earth should have believed, it was them, yet they rejected Christ. Had the promise failed? Was the Word of God null and void? Of course not! “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel” (Romans 9:6). Being one of the sons of Israel is a matter of faith, not flesh.

Yet if it is a matter of faith, then God, and not man, makes one a part of the great congregation. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion. So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Romans 9:15-16). It is God’s action, not ours, that creates faith. It is God’s action, not ours, that sustains faith. God freely elects, freely chooses, those who belong to Him. Salvation is of the Lord from beginning to end, apart from any human considerations.

However, the Gentiles, who did not have the promise, have come to believe in the promise. “What shall we say, then? That Gentiles who did not pursue righteousness have attained it, that is, a righteousness that is by faith; but that Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:30-32). The Gentiles have been grafted into the living tree.

Israel has been hardened because of sin. Their hardening means that the Gospel goes out to the Gentiles (Romans 11:25). Israel stumbles in sin so that the Gentiles would be brought in. Paul himself rebuked the Jews for the hardness of heart, saying “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46; see also Acts 18:6). Through God’s perfect Providence, the evil of Israel’s sin turns into a great good for the Gentiles, because now they hear the preaching of the Gospel.

Yet the mercy shown to the Gentiles is meant to call Israel back from their hardening. “They too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Acts 11:31). Israel according to the flesh becomes jealous when strangers occupy their promised inheritance. Because of their jealousy, they will turn from their wickedness and seek after the promise according to faith, called from death back to life.

Paul’s conclusion, the reading for Trinity, therefore emphasizes the glory and the mystery of God’s providence in the world. God controls all things, and this perfect control also means that He uses what are dark and mysterious paths to us to accomplish His goals. What men mean for evil, God intends for good, bringing about the salvation of His elect without fail. Even though Israel stumbles from their own sin, God intends it to be salvation for the Gentiles. Even though the Gentiles walked in darkness from their own sin, God intends it to be salvation for the Jews. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To be Him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36)!

First Sunday in Advent: Romans 13:11-14

The First Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of the church calendar, therefore it is an opportune time to change the choice of lectionary studies. Beginning with this Sunday, I will now focus on the Epistle readings, just as I had previously focused on the Old Testament.

Romans 13:11-14 falls within the wider subsection of Romans 12-15. In the previous section of Romans 9-11, Paul demonstrates that, while Israel has stumbled and is under a partial hardening, God’s purposes in election have not failed. Israel cannot boast in the flesh, just as the Gentiles cannot boast in being grafted in to the tree in place of Israel. There is no room for boasting anywhere. “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Romans 11:30-31). The Lord has not chosen based on merit. His election is sure and done for His own purposes, and the faithful are counted among the elect purely by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Deuteronomy 7:6-11).

But election is not a trump card. That was Israel’s sin that brought judgment upon them until the fulness of the Gentiles comes in. One cannot be elect and lack faith, as if being part of Israel according to the flesh was enough for salvation. The Lord chooses to have mercy on whom He will have mercy (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). But wherever this faith is, there are also the fruits of faith (Luke 6:45), which is Paul’s point in Romans 12-15. For those who know the Lord’s mercy walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Paul exhorts the Romans toward this living faith, a faith which does not delight in the division which plagued the Roman church, but seeks “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

While there is much that is descriptive about this section, such as Romans 12:9-21 which in the Greek is composed primarily of sentence fragments without verbs, Paul does not hesitate speak commands as well. Romans 13:1, for example, is a clear imperative: let this be the case, and not otherwise. Exhortation is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive, because the Christian struggling in the flesh needs to learn what the will of God means, often in rather concrete formulations. As Paul said in the beginning of this section, conforming to the Spirit rather than to the world involves testing and discernment, both of which are not automatic processes.

Thus, the reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a strong exhortation to put off what is evil and to cling to what is good. Paul highlights the urgency of this message by noting what the Christian should already recognize: the time is growing shorter and shorter with each passing moment. The Judgment of Christ is fast approaching. “Salvation,” by which Paul means the fullness of our salvation when Christ returns in glory, “is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). Wake up! Do not slumber in sin! The end is near (Luke 21:28; Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:13). The night of God’s patience is fast coming to an end; it is the moment just before the dawn. Even now the night is beginning to brighten in the east.

Since the time is fast approaching, Paul exhorts us to cast off “the works of darkness,” which he describes briefly here and more fully elsewhere (Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-11). There is a sense in which this call shows the reality of sin in this life. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). But Paul is not describing the struggle here, but commanding. Will we walk as is befitting for Christians? Or will we turn again to the works of the flesh? Orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarreling, and jealousy belong to the former way of life. The Christian must choose whether to seek after life or seek after death (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Only those who are in Christ have such a choice, of course, but the regenerate will is real. Christ saves the whole man, and those who know the Lord also choose Him above all other things.

Romans 13:14 is therefore an important summary. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” just as we have put Him on as the garment of our righteousness. But at the same time, “make no provision for the flesh.” Do not even tend to the needs of the flesh and its sinful desires! But make provision for the Spirit, walking in His ways and seeking to conform to the will of God. Too often Christians get this backwards, putting ourselves in the path of temptation, knowing full well that the end can only be evil. What’s the harm of looking? But Paul commands us clearly: do not even till the soil for the seeds of sin, but let us seek the fruit of righteousness whose harvest will come when the morning dawns.

All Saints Day: Revelation 7:2-17

John’s vision in Revelation 7:2-17 comes in the midst of judgments. The Lamb is breaking open each of the seven great seals which enclose the scroll He took in Revelation 5:6-8. While the breaking of the seals tend to symbolize various judgments and fearful things happening on the earth, there is a comfort in knowing that the Lamb is the one doing these things. Such things are not beyond His control. As God permitted Satan to afflict Job (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6), so also His fearful judgments of sinners will accomplish exactly what He intends them to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). Therefore, just before the seventh seal is broken, John sees a vision of angels numbering the sons of Israel. The destroying angels are restrained for a time according to the will of God, apart from whom nothing can happen.

The numbering of the tribes itself is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all, unlike parallel numberings of Israel in passages like Numbers 1, the tribes are identical in size. Israel wandering in the wilderness had yet to come into their inheritance. Even within the promised land, they awaited a better country (Hebrews 11:13-16). Now, in this vision, Israel has come into her own. John sees in the people what Ezekiel had seen in the land: the portions are the same and God is in their midst (Ezekiel 48:1-29).

However, unlike in Ezekiel, the names of the tribes have changed. Notably absent are two tribes: Dan and Ephraim. Further, while Manasseh is present, Joseph also appears separately in the list, which was not typical for this list in the Old Testament. As far as Dan is concerned, this tribe was the first to fall into gross idolatry in the promised land (Judges 18), and Jeroboam set up one of his golden calves in that territory (1 Kings 12:28-30). Dan’s absence therefore seems to be an indirect way of describing Israel finally purged of the idolatry for which she suffered so much. As for Ephraim, the prophets frequently, but not exclusively, referred to this tribe as the tribe of Joseph (Zechariah 10:6 and Ezekiel 37:15-23, for example). This may also recall Israel’s blessing of the sons of Joseph and the preference shown to the younger Ephraim (Genesis 48).

Third, Israel is sealed prior to the vision of the great multitude later in the passage. This is not an incidental detail. As Paul says regarding Israel according to the flesh, “To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen” (Romans 9:5). Christ also says on several occasions that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). After all, God promised that the offspring of Abraham would be as numerous as the stars, and “in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 26:4). Through Israel, as the elder brother, the blessing of Christ would come to all nations.

Paul, of course, clarifies that belonging to Israel according to the flesh is not enough. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). But the Israelite who believes is a natural branch returning to his own tree. John sees Israel no longer hardened. “The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26). Therefore, in that moment, the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and the two have become one (Ephesians 2:11-22). Israel and the nations have become one people, even as the honor shown to the believing and purified older brother persists to his glory for all time.

John also sees the great ingathering of the nations. They have entered into their Sabbath rest, resting from all turmoil and pain and worshiping God who has delivered them (Hebrews 4:9-10). Thus, the Sabbath finds its fulfillment in the great Sabbath. What we experience now in the midst of toil, work, and pain, often only one day in seven, shall become the totality. Even our imperfect liturgical forms will give way like shadows before the light in the fullness of that great Day. No longer will our hearts be burdened with distractions and worries! No longer will our lips only mouth words of praise! “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

One of the elders asks John a question which John does not know how to answer, much like Zechariah (Zechariah 4:1-14). This elder seeks to instruct John, and us through him, so that the vision may be clear. Revelation is not a sealed book, like many of the apocalyptic books in the Old Testament (Daniel 12:9-13). It is meant to comfort those who are in tribulation now, for by knowing “the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1), those who hear this prophecy will not be caught unawares.

But the message is clear: here, in the midst of turmoil and tribulation, these saints now rest from their labors. The pains and sorrows of this world will soon come to an end. Purged of their sins, they will worship God in purity and sincerity. Free from their sorrows, they shall know a joy which knows no end. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

Those of us who still toil and labor can rejoice knowing that our Sabbath rest awaits us. But we can also take heart knowing that those who have departed in the faith now rest in Christ awaiting His glorious return. Then, as Israel and the nations have become one man in Christ, so we who are left until His coming will be caught up together with Him (1 Thessalonians 4:17). The Church will no longer be at war, but she will be His people, one holy Bride, resting blameless in His sight and alive in Him, never to die again.

Twelfth Sunday after Trinity: Isaiah 29:17-24

Distress and judgment shall come upon Jerusalem!  Isaiah says very clearly that foreign armies will surround the city and bring it down to the ground.  “And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down” (Isaiah 29:4).  Yet this judgment will be swift and intense.  Isaiah compares the coming of these armies to “fine dust” and “passing chaff” (Isaiah 29:5).  They “shall be like a dream, a vision of the night” (Isaiah 29:7).  The fire of the Lord descending upon Jerusalem shall come quickly and pass by so quickly that there will be no time to prepare.

However, a yet greater judgment than this is poured out upon Israel.  The Lord is hardening their hearts because of their sins.  They will be blind, drunk without drinking wine, and asleep (Isaiah 29:9-10).  This is the Lord’s judgment upon a sinful and rebellious people, lest they turn and see and be healed (Isaiah 6:10).  Paul cites this verse in Romans 11:8 as evidence that the Lord will bring about a great wonder through this hardening.  Israel will stumble so that the nations may be brought in.  Everything will be turned right-side up.  Even the “spirit of deep sleep” in Isaiah 29:10 points to this, because it is the same sleep God poured out on Adam (Genesis 2:21), on Abraham (Genesis 15:12), and on Saul and his army (1 Samuel 26:12).  It is a sleep which marks a great turning point in the history of God’s salvation.

But Israel cannot see this for what it is.  They are like men attempting to read a sealed book or illiterate men who cannot read it at all (Isaiah 29:11-12).  Jesus cites Isaiah 29:13 against the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9, because the hardness of the hearts leads them, as it did their fathers, to honor God only in words and not with their heart.  Therefore, the Lord will “again do wonderful things with this people” (Isaiah 29:14) who He once delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34).  He will turn things upside down in His almighty power.  As Paul says when he cites Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Corinthians 1:19, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” a reversal which finds its fullest expression in Christ crucified, the stumbling block of the Jews.

Yet this is a stumbling block because the clay desires to say that it is not made by the potter or that the potter lacks understanding (Isaiah 29:16).  Why should God upset everything in this way?  Why should Jerusalem, the city of God’s favor (1 Kings 11:36), be cast down?  “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God” (Romans 9:20)?  God will do as He pleases for His own purposes, hardening Israel to bring in the fullness of the Gentiles.  “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways” (Romans 11:33)!

Therefore, the lectionary reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity describes this reversal which is meant to make Israel jealous (Deuteronomy 32:19-22).  Lebanon, noted for its forests throughout Scripture (Judges 9:15; 1 Kings 4:33; 5:6; 7:2; etc.), will be reduced to a field, perhaps an orchard.  But the fruitful field will be regarded as a mighty forest.  Those who are deaf shall hear.  Those who are blind shall see.  The ruthless will come to nothing.  Those who watch to do evil will be cut off.  “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (Romans 10:20-21).

Jacob will then see his children in his midst, the children of the promise, because “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).  His jealousy for the Lord will lead to a real change of heart.  Those who have gone astray will understand and those who murmur against God will accept His instruction (Isaiah 29:24).  No longer will stumble over the cornerstone Christ, but they will believe in Him and be grafted in again to their own natural tree.  The sons of Levi will be purified, and they will offer up a sacrifice in righteousness (Malachi 3:3), living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).