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The Forgotten Era of the Missouri Synod

How does the past come to be forgotten? Maybe there are parts of our own past that we’ve forgotten. Join us to remember the period of Missouri’s greatest growth in the time between the Civil War and the Great Depression and to hear how we can think about our fathers in the faith and imitate their zeal for Christ.

Historical works mentioned in the podcast include:

Ebenezer: Reviews of the Work of the Missouri Synod During Three Quarters of a Century

The Concordia Cyclopedia

Walther’s Works: Predestination

The Synodical Conference: Ecumenical Endeavor

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz
Episode: 51

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Faithful in Mission, Part 5

So far we have discussed the message. What about the messenger? We have also spent a lot of time during this convention speaking about unity. What does that mean for the mission of the Church? The last passage to consider is 1 Corinthians 9:15-23. Talking about being “all things to all men” might seem counter intuitive with regard to unity, but consider the context of this passage. Corinth in general was deeply divided, and one of the points of division in the congregation was over the question of meat sacrificed to idols. Some, knowing that an idol is nothing at all, believed that they could partake of that meat without any issues. Others, weaker in conscience, believed it to be a sin, for they knew the Commandment: You shall have no other gods. However, the stronger despised the weak for that reason and went ahead anyway, destroying the work of God in the process. Paul calls for all Christians to bear with one another in love, abstaining even from that which was lawful in order to build up rather than tear down.

Therefore, Paul defends his office of apostle against those who spoke against him. Paul had every right to eat and drink, to take a wife, and to make his living by the Gospel. None of these things were forbidden to him. Yet he denies himself those rights for the sake of the Gospel. This is what he means in our passage for consideration. “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul denies himself what he could have so that there would be nothing in the way of doing what God sent him to do. His language of “necessity” drives this point home. Just like the warning to the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3, the watchman who does not warn the sinner will bear that sinner’s guilt upon his own head, but the watchman who speaks will deliver his own soul. Paul says, “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” If done willingly, there is a reward. If not, there is still the matter of duty. Yet Paul undertakes it willingly so that nothing would stand in the way of the Gospel. He forsakes even what he could do for the sake of the proclamation.

His point, then, about being “all things to all men” is not about being pragmatic, as if he just tinkered with his message to make it more palatable to certain groups of people. Paul, though strong, gave up his strength to be like the weak so that the work of Christ would not be torn down. The stronger Christian is not called to lord it over the weaker. That is the way of disunity, the very problem at Corinth. The way of the Spirit is the unity of peace, bearing with one another and caring for one another just as Christ did not make use of His rights when He came down among us. Christ calls us to be self-denying and selfless in His service. Note that Paul did not pretend as if he was not married to certain groups of people, nor did he pretend that he made his living by tent-making to others. Paul gave them up entirely so that nothing would hinder the Gospel of Christ. It must be noted, of course, that Paul does not mean that the weaker brother should be left in his weakness. He must be built up in Christ so that he would be strong according to the grace of the Lord. Yet we must be so willing to follow after Jesus that we would give up even what is ours by right or by desire to be fishers of men. Jesus says in Luke 18:29-30: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Christians, the Lord has called us into the world to proclaim His Word. You are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you should walk in them. Let us be faithful to that calling, being willing to forsake everything for His sake. Let us be united in that calling, proclaiming the Law and the Gospel to all. As Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

Faithful in Mission, Part 4

Once one recognizes his sin, the Spirit proclaims the word of reconciliation. The fourth passage for consideration is Acts 8:26-40. Philip provides an excellent example. “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. And he rose and went.” Philip does not hesitate! Hearing the command of the Lord, he goes to the place where the Lord wants him to be. May we too be so quick to follow the will of our Master! Philip meets an important man from Ethiopia who was returning from Jerusalem. He probably feared God in some way, but his knowledge was obviously incomplete. Philip hears the eunuch reading from the book of Isaiah and asks him whether he understands what he is saying. When he then brings Philip into his chariot to help him, Philip proclaims Christ. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” Note what Philip had done. Following the call of the Spirit, Philip proclaimed Jesus Christ from the Scriptures. No one other than Christ is our hope and our salvation. Because the Lord willed for this man to believe in Him, the eunuch then desired to be baptized. The Sacraments are also part of the mission of the Church and should not be separated from it. Those who believe in Christ are made a part of the body of Christ. Mission work is never divorced from the life of the whole.

Because the work of the Lord is intimately connected with the church body, there is always the temptation to engage in mission work as a way of making things run better. Our church is not as big as it used to be, so we should evangelize the neighborhood. It is a dangerous way of thinking, because it regards people not as souls in need of Christ but as the means to keeping things going. Yet notice what Philip does after baptizing the eunuch: “And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” It was the will of the Lord that Philip continue on his way, but that did not color the message that Philip proclaimed. The Ethiopian needed to hear about Christ, and Christ caused His Church to grow, even if he was no longer connected to Philip. Philip even preached the Gospel the whole way from Azotus to Caesarea, not seeking personal gain or glory, but being faithful to the Lord’s mission. Those believers were connected to the local churches, of course, because it is the Lord’s will for us to lift up holy hands in every place. It seems the most natural for those who hear our message to be attached to our local congregations, but it may be the Lord’s will for them to go somewhere else instead. Pray for a bountiful harvest, but let God hammer out the details.

Faithful in Mission, Part 3

Thus, the mission itself and the importance of that mission are clear. We are called to proclaim the Word of God because we are in Christ, and the Lord has chosen to call His elect through our preaching. It is not our Word, but His. What, then, is the content of that message? Because Christ has come to call sinners to faith, one must first recognize his own sin. The third passage for consideration, therefore, is Romans 1:18-23. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Paul here states that God’s wrath is not something that is hidden. His wrath is not part of His special revelation, but it is evident to all men. However, men suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Everyone knows, whether he wants to admit it or not, that God exists, because they know the Law of God in their conscience. This is not a deistic concept of God, as if we have a vague notion of a creator deity who demands something from us. Paul says that they know God, because God has revealed Himself to them. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” All people are without excuse, because even though they know God, they suppress this knowledge through sin. If they did not know God as He is, then they might have a defense before the judgment seat, claiming ignorance of Him and of His Law. Yet all are without excuse. All men must answer to God, because they have broken His Law. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Idolatry, according to Paul, is not putting a face upon a vague notion of a god. It is not creating an image of a sense of divine power. It is deliberately giving what properly belongs to the only God to one of His creations. In their desire to suppress what they know to be true, they worship the creature rather than the creator and pile sin upon sin.

This is an important consideration, because the message which Christ has sent us to proclaim is not one that is entirely foreign to our hearers. If they truly did not know God at all, not even in their heart of hearts, then there could be no proclamation. They would not be guilty of breaking the Law, because then the Law would be something foreign. Men would be neutral with respect to God, something which is plainly not true, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We should not hesitate to proclaim the Law to the unbeliever, because it reveals what he refuses to admit: that he is a lawbreaker guilty before the only God whom he tries desperately to deny. There is also no relativism here, as if the Christian worldview was an alternative to the unbelieving one. This is not a case of I have mine and you have yours. Rather, there is one and only one reality, the Christian. The unbeliever knows God, as Paul says, because he must assume so in order to make sense of anything. Morality, for example, presupposes that God is good. Evil has no meaning apart from contrasting it with the Triune God. Science presupposes order, something which makes no sense apart from God. Of course, the unbeliever denies this vigorously, but in order to know anything at all, he begins with the very God he tries to suppress.

The task of apologetics, therefore, is to “destroy strongholds,” to use the language of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:4. I believe that there is a real danger in treating apologetics as merely preliminary to the Gospel. There is in fact no truly middle ground between belief and unbelief. Everything which the unbeliever sees is colored by his suppression of the truth. Even the resurrection all by itself can be distorted, as Christ Himself says in Luke 16:31: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” A vigorous proclamation of God’s Word, therefore, is the most vigorous apologetic.

Faithful in Mission, Part 2

The Lord’s command, then, is clear. The second passage, Romans 10, further clarifies the importance of this mission. Throughout this section of Romans, Paul wrestles with the question of election. Why had the Jews, who were chosen by God, fallen away, while the Gentiles, who were separated from God, had come to know Him? Paul argues in Romans 10:12-13 that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'” Salvation, therefore, is not a matter of human will or according to the flesh. Those who believe do so because God has chosen them from before the foundation of the world. The doctrine of election informs our understanding of mission. God does not choose men because we have preached the Gospel to them, as if we act and then the Lord confirms it. The Lord will without fail bring His elect to Himself, apart from every human consideration.

Yet the Lord uses us for His own purposes. Paul writes in Romans 10:14-15: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” Follow the progression of Paul’s thought. All who call on God will be saved. Only those who believe in Him will call on His name. They can only believe in the God they have heard or know. They can only hear the Word when it is proclaimed. One can only proclaim what he has been sent to proclaim. It is therefore the Lord’s will that brings His elect to Himself, and yet it is through men that His calling goes out into the world. The mission of the Church is therefore not useless or secondary when viewed in the light of election. Rather, the proclamation of the Gospel takes on a new urgency. The Lord calls His elect through the voice of the preacher.

Paul goes on in Romans 10 to answer the overarching question about Israel’s hardening. His ultimate point, toward the end of Romans 11, is that Israel was hardened so that the Gospel would go out into the world and that salvation is by faith and not by works. There is nothing within ourselves that makes us worthy of the mercy of God. However, Paul wishes to show in Romans 10 that, even though Israel had heard the Gospel, they continued to resist. Paul says, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’ But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ 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.'” His words remind us that the Gospel we have been sent to proclaim is not our own. God works faith when and where He pleases. As Paul says in Romans 9:15: “I [the Lord] will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The Gospel is not a magical formula that we can use to convert anyone we please. Some will hear and be hardened. Some will hear and bear abundant fruit.

Isaiah 55:10-11 emphasizes this point. The Word of the Lord accomplishes His purposes and succeeds in doing whatever He sends it to do. We should not imagine that God scatters His Word aimlessly, as if the sower in the parable in passages like Luke 8 was casting the Word with reckless abandon. God intends His Word to go exactly where He wants it to go and to do exactly what He wants it to do. Sometimes He sends it as a hard word, as when He sent many of the prophets. The Lord charges Ezekiel to speak His Word to His own people even though they would refuse to listen. Ezekiel 3:10-11 says: “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears. And go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,’ whether they hear or refuse to hear.” Therefore, the Lord’s calling is to proclaim the Word in its fullness, both the hard word and the easy word. We cannot split up the proclamation.

Faithful in Mission, Part 1

This five-part series was originally presented at the North Dakota District Convention in January 2018.

Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to faithfulness, and being faithful includes being faithful to His calling. Jesus commands His Church to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom to the whole world. This, all by itself, should be enough for us to take up the task in our own generation. However, there are many competing definitions of what it means to carry out this mission. My goal is to consider what the Bible has to say about the mission of the Church with a view to putting it into practice. I am not proposing a program. Rather, belief translates into practice. It is not enough to say that we want to carry out the Lord’s mission without actually doing anything. John Charles Ryle, an Anglican bishop who lived in the nineteenth century, sums up this danger nicely when he comments on Matthew 10:16-23 that: “The extreme into which most men are liable to fall in the present day, is that of silence, cowardice, and letting others alone. Our so-called prudence is apt to degenerate into a compromising line of conduct, or downright unfaithfulness.” Ryle recognizes that we can go too far in the other direction as well, letting zeal get out of hand, but consider what he says. Are we being faithful to the Lord’s calling, or do we hope that someone else will do the work of a missionary in our place? Therefore, if we desire to keep the Lord’s command, what are we called to do? What does the Holy Spirit have to say to us about the mission of the Church? In order to discern the mind of the Spirit regarding this matter, I will examine a number of passages.

The first question we must ask is “Why?” Why do we go into the world to proclaim the Gospel? The most natural place to begin is also the most common: Matthew 28:18-20. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'” Because this passage is so well known, I want to make only a couple of observations. First, Jesus begins with a declaration of His authority, especially now that He has been glorified. This is not accidental. The Church goes to proclaim the Gospel on the authority of Christ. We are not the masters of this mission, but the servants tasked with doing our Master’s will. Our mission, therefore, does not begin with us, but with God. The Father sent His Son into the world, and the Son now sends us. To be in the body of Christ is to be sent just as He was sent. We are therefore unified in our mission to the world because we are one in Christ. Second, Christ commands the Church to make disciples of all nations. We commonly divide the mission of the Church into foreign missions and national or domestic missions. Each present their own unique set of challenges. However, such a division sometimes has an unintended side effect, because there is a tendency to emphasize foreign missions over those at home. It is easier to be concerned for the neighbor who lives far off than to be concerned for the neighbor next door. However, “all nations” includes our own parish and neighborhood. Mission work does not begin twenty miles from home. One does not need the title of “missionary” to do what the Lord calls us to do, and sometimes that can be as close as next door or even closer still. I am not disparaging foreign missions, of course. The Gospel must be preached to the whole creation. Yet let us not forget that our coworker or even our family member is a soul for whom Christ died, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us to talk about Jesus with someone we know well.

Pentecost: Acts 2:1-21

While the Lord’s actions at Pentecost were new, the day of Pentecost was an old observance.  On the day following Passover, the Lord commanded a presentation of the firstfruits of the harvest (Leviticus 23:10-11).  Such a presentation reinforced the recognition of God’s Providence, especially since it happened within the promised land.  Seven weeks later, on the fiftieth day, the Feast of Weeks involved another presentation of new grain to the Lord along with a number of burnt animal offerings (Leviticus 23:15-21; see also Numbers 28:26-31).  Not only was it a day of the firstfruits of the harvest, but Pentecost was also one of the days upon which the men of Israel were to gather together before the Lord (Exodus 34:22-23; 23:14-17).  It was a time of rejoicing and a perpetual remembrance of the great deliverance from Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:10-12).

It was entirely fitting, then, on this harvest festival that the great harvest of the nations would begin.  Jesus Himself told His disciples to “lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35).  The firstfruits of the nations believed in the Lord on that day, and the great harvest continues until the coming of the end.  It is also the beginning of an abundance unlike anything previously.  The time of seeding and tending came in the days of the Law and of the prophets among the nation of Israel almost exclusively, but the fullness of the harvest goes out into all the world.  Had not Jesus Himself promised that “whoever believes in me will also dot he works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12)?

The disciples, obeying the orders of Christ, waited in Jerusalem between the period of His ascension and Pentecost (Acts 1:4).  Their mighty work about to begin there is not the work of men, as if their impressiveness would carry the Church out into the world.  They were shaped by a period of obedience to the will of God, taught to wait on His will and not their own.

The mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit manifested itself with visible signs:  a mighty wind and flames of fire.  These signs were not necessary for the Apostles, as if their wavering faith needed them.  They were meant to console us, because in the foundation of His Church, the Lord confirmed the gift of the Holy Spirit with an extraordinary miracle.  This is further shown by the unique character of this outpouring of the Spirit.  Jesus, after all, had promised that they would be baptized with the Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1:5), but this does not mean that it is a regular gift greater than baptism by water.  After all, Peter himself would connect the giving of the Spirit with Baptism explicitly in His Pentecost sermon (Acts 2:38).  Therefore, this baptism of the Spirit marks the beginning of the harvest, and these marvels were signs that the great day of the Lord had come.

Thus filled with the Holy Spirit, they could not help but speak as the Spirit moved them.  Eldad and Medad, filled with the Spirit, prophesied in the camp (Numbers 11:26-30).  Saul also prophesied under the inspiration of the Spirit, to the wonder of those around him (1 Samuel 10:10-13).  Yet in the Old Testament, this was a relatively rare experience, limited in number of people and times.  Now in the beginning of the last days, what was formerly restricted came to be the possession of all people, as testified by the prophecy of Joel which Peter cites (Acts 2:17-21 from Joel 2:28-32).  “And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:34).  This explicit connection of knowledge to the last days clarifies that prophecy is not exclusively the act of preaching.  Rather, like Agabus in Acts 11:28, the hidden things of God were coming to light.  No longer would these things be heard in the dark (Luke 12:3).

Regarding the tongues they spoke, it is first worth noting that they were intelligible without an interpreter, making them ordinary human languages rather than heavenly ones in need of explanation.  “How is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language” (Acts 2:8)?  Yet the presence of such a sign is not a proof of the Holy Spirit all by itself.  Prophets had and could deceive others while calling on the name of God (Deuteronomy 18:22).  Satan himself can work great signs (Revelation 13:13-14).  Even Paul’s concern for interpreting tongues shows that a man could lovelessly exercise such a gift (1 Corinthians 14:26-33).  Rather, the solid proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit consisted in Peter’s proclamation of Christ and the corresponding reception of that Word unto faith (Acts 2:41).  Together with the Word, therefore, the languages of the Apostles were a tremendous confirmation of the work of God that day.

Finally, the long list of the nations at Pentecost points in every direction.  Parthia, Media, Elam, and Mesopotamia all lie east of Judea, and the Jews who dwelled there largely spoke Aramaic.  Not only was this the first place to which Israel was scattered in the Exile (2 Kings 17), but by the time of the Persian Empire, they dwelled among virtually all the provinces without a great concern for returning back to the promised land (Esther 3:8, among others).  Setting aside Judea, the areas of Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, and Pamphylia fall largely to the north, likely speaking forms of Greek.  It is also largely in this area that Paul would later do most of his work.  Egypt and Lybia fall to the south.  Notably, however, Rome is also part of this picture, coming from the west.  It is a major indicator not only of the goal of the whole book of Acts, ending in Rome, but also of the mission of the Church.  It would go out to the Gentiles, even if Peter does not yet fully grasp this as he will in Acts 10.  Yet in this moment, the words of Christ find their fulfillment:  “And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).

Ascension: Acts 1:1-11

While the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke are closely connected and written by the same author, Luke seems to have composed them separately.  Luke 24:50-53, for example, includes a brief synopsis of the Ascension, while Acts 1:1-3 equally briefly recounts the events of Luke 24.  The purpose of each book, however, is different.  In the Gospel, Jesus begins to work and teach, while in Acts, Jesus continues to work and teach through His Church.

The ascension, therefore, is not Jesus disappearing from the scene until the Second Coming.  Christ ascends so as to be nearer to His Church.  “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth:  it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).  The sending of the Holy Spirit closely follows, because Jesus sends His Church into the world to be His witnesses.

Christ ascending into heaven also figures as one of the most important events within the New Testament, ranking next to His death and resurrection.  Having gone up into heaven, He sits down at the right hand of God.  In this moment, Christ receives the glory and the reward for His work.  All things have been put under His feet (Ephesians 1:20-23; 1 Peter 3:22).  “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).  Christ’s victory also consoles His Christians in the world.  Paul, for example, connects all three as proof that Christ intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).  Those who belong to Him seek the things which are above, because Christ is there at God’s right hand (Colossians 3:1).

It is, however, easy to misunderstand the purpose of Christ’s ascension.  The disciples, thinking in terms of the world, imagined that Christ’s enthronement meant that all things would be set in order immediately.  They did not understand that Christ reigns in the midst of His enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25).  While Christ’s reign is perfect, it still expands and grows through His work in the world.  When the fullness of the kingdom will come is not for His Church to know.  But how this will come to pass is the work of the Church in this age.  The power of the Holy Spirit sends the Church out to the very ends of the earth to bear witness about what has been seen and heard.

The angels who gently rebuke the apostles point toward this reality.  Christ disappearing behind a cloud is not the end of His work.  He “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” when He returns to judge the living and the dead, an office given to Him as a consequence of His death and resurrection (Romans 14:9).  Prior to that judgment, however, Christ sends the Spirit to send His Church.  “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).  “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:48-49).  “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).  This mighty, living, active Word continues to grow in the world, because the ascended Jesus sits at God’s right hand.

Book Review: St. Patrick of Ireland

St. Patrick of Ireland by Philip Freeman.  New York:  Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 2005.

St. Patrick looms vaguely in our cultural consciousness, mostly because his commemoration became secularized.  He has become an icon of Irish nationalism, even though he himself was not Irish, and many myths attached themselves to his work, making it difficult to separate fact from fiction.  Patrick, however, provides an example of missionary fervor worthy of imitation in our day, especially when considering his hardships, the dangers he faced, and the life he left behind in order to be a worthy servant of Christ.

Philip Freeman sketches an easy to read picture of Patrick’s life, especially since Patrick himself left only two writings that have survived to the present day.  Most of Freeman’s book details the background necessary to understand Patrick’s work.  Freeman directs interested readers to further resources on early Britain and Ireland at the end, though his own treatment is wholly sufficient for even the most casual reader, and he includes a translation of Patrick’s two letters as well.  Freeman occasionally colors his presentation in ways I cannot endorse, but even his personal foibles do not detract from an otherwise informative book.

Patrick was born in a wealthy Roman and Christian family in late fourth century Britain.  He struggled with faith in his youth, committing some unnamed sin which would haunt him for the rest of his life.  While he was still young, however, slavers caught Patrick and carried him away to Ireland, where he labored as a slave for six years.  This enslavement had two effects:  it deprived him of a formal education, which meant that his command of the Latin language remained halting throughout his life; but it also drove him to rely on the Lord.  In the fires of tribulation, God shaped Patrick into a servant who would suffer much on behalf of His name.

After six years, he managed to escape and returned to Britain to be reunited with his family.  However, Patrick knew that he could not stay.  Contrary to all expectations, he knew that he had to return to the place of his slavery in order to be a servant of God.  Leaving behind his family’s wealth and the security of Britain, Patrick became a priest and returned to Ireland around the year 432.  There, amid the squabbling of the clan kings of Ireland and the opposition of the native druids, Patrick labored for many years.  He was not the first Christian on the island, but few before or after him affected that land so profoundly.

Late in his life, a nominally Christian British chieftain named Coroticus captured and enslaved some of Patrick’s flock, some of whom had just been baptized at Easter.  Deeply grieved, Patrick boldly wrote a letter to Coroticus, rebuking him harshly for his unchristian action (calling he and his men “citizens of hell”) and calling on him to repent.  This letter is one of the two which has survived.  Patrick’s concern for his people resonates throughout the letter, as well as his fearlessness in the face of adversity.

His action, however, enraged the British church.  Who was Patrick, this rustic bishop of backwards Ireland, to encroach upon matters outside his authority?  He should have left the matter to Coroticus’ own bishop, in their minds.  They therefore called Patrick to stand judgment, and his famous Confession, the other work which has survived, served as his legal defense.  In it, he described his own life and the work he had done in Ireland.  Patrick is not apologetic for what he has done; rather, he defends his ministry through his broken Latin.  His own words sum it up best:  “I would write these words of my defense again and again if I could.  I declare in truth and with joy in my heart–before God and his holy angels–that I have never had any motive in my work except preaching the good news and its promises.  That is the only reason I returned here to Ireland–a place I barely escaped from alive.”

Patrick, therefore, serves as a fantastic example for our own day.  Instead of fleeing Ireland forever, which he might have reasonably done after being a slave there, he returned with the aim of proclaiming the Gospel.  Instead of looking for fame and renown, he labored long among the Irish despite opposition from pagan and sometimes fellow Christians alike.  Instead of fearing men and harm to his own body or position, he feared the living God, proclaiming what is right as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed.

Witnessing to Christ


Jesus says that the fields are ripe for the harvest. How should we work in his harvest fields as good laborers? Join us as we discuss some difficulties in evangelism and how to overcome them in order to extend God’s reign.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz
Episode: 11

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