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The WFS crew celebrates our 100th episode by answering listener questions.  From circuit riding to streaming services on the internet, we tackle a wide array of topics.  Here’s to the next 100!

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide

Regular Guests: Rev. Adam Koontz, Rev. David Appold, and Rev. Aaron Uphoff

Episode: 100

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The ancient Christians classed Psalm 6 as the first of the seven penitential psalms, for good reason.  In it, the psalmist calls upon God to turn away from His burning anger and to look upon him with favor.  Whatever may be causing such distress in the psalm itself is somewhat beside the point.  Physical sickness, the attack of enemies, fear of the final judgment, fear in the midst of disaster, all of them in the end boil down to the same basic cry:  “Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger!”

Psalm 6 opens with a clear petition:  “Lord, do not rebuke me in Your anger, and do not chastise me in Your wrath.  Favor me, Lord, for I am frail.  Heal me, Lord, for my bones are terrified.  And my soul is exceedingly terrified.  But you, Lord, how long?”  It is most likely that the psalmist is being assaulted by enemies, judging by the end of the psalm.  But this is a cry of a soul suffering under God’s wrath, not merely suffering at the hands of men.  It is the Lord who rebukes and chastises David.  The terror in his bones emphasizes the depth of this fear:  it is not merely a formality or psychological, but a deep and abiding fear of the wrath of God.  How long is this going to go on, Lord?  It seems like God is distant and turned away from him in anger.

Note, however, that David does not ask God to stop rebuking or chastising him.  Rather, “do not rebuke me in Your anger,” that is, in wrath visited upon sin.  The Lord rebukes His elect, but for a different reason.  “It is for discipline that you have to endure.  God is treating you as sons.  For what son is there whom his father does not discipline” (Hebrews 12:7)?  Through such discipline, the Lord teaches.  “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me, declares the Lord” (Amos 4:6).  Therefore, we should not flee away from suffering as if it was repulsive and necessarily bad, and this includes the experience of God’s discipline.  A God who only gives us positive experiences, or negative ones that quickly give way to positive ones, is not the God of Scripture.  Through the experience of God’s discipline, the Lord teaches us to rely upon Him above all things.

“Return, Lord, rescue my soul.  Save me on account of your steadfast love.”  David has no recourse before the Lord except His steadfast love.  If God were to turn away from His elect, His honor and glory would perish.  But the Lord is steadfast, even in the midst of intense trial.  He turns away His face from His sons to show them that He will not forsake them.  “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime.  Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

“For in death there is not remembrance of You.  In Sheol, who will praise you?”  This cannot mean that the dead are insensible or nonexistent, for the souls cried out from under the altar, just as the blood of Abel cried out from the ground (Genesis 4:10; Revelation 6:9-11).  Rather, “remembrance” may also be translated as “mention.”  Remembering the Lord is not simply recollection, but calling to mind before the whole congregation what the Lord has done.  God does not, after all, simply think about Noah when He remembered him and those with him in the ark, but sent the winds to push away the waters of the flood!  If remembrance implies action, then those who are dead are no longer able to do what only the living can do:  praise God by recounting His glorious deeds out loud.

“I am weary with my sighing.  I cause my bed to swim the whole night.  With my tears I flood my couch.  My eye has become dark with grief.  It grows old from all my attackers.”  David emphasizes the intensity of his contrition.  Not only do his tears flow without ceasing in grief over his sin, but he also “grows old” under the strain.  I think this should be understood in the same way we use expressions like “this will give me gray hairs.”  David’s contrition and the desire to see God’s face again is more than he wants to bear.  It drives him back to the Lord and causes him to call upon Him without ceasing.

But at this point, there is a remarkable shift.  Something has occurred.  “Go away from me, all you doers of wickedness, for the Lord has heard the voice of my weeping.  The Lord hears my pleading.  The Lord accepts my prayer.”  His enemies can no longer trouble him, because he knows that the Lord has heard his cries.  It may be that his weeping has turned to trust, recalling the steadfast love of the Lord.  It may also be that he has heard the voice of another, just as Hannah heard the voice of Eli, causing her to rejoice that she had been heard (1 Samuel 1:15-18).  Whether internal or external, the psalmist leaves behind his weeping and knows that the Lord remains with him, even in the midst of distress.

“Ashamed and exceedingly terrified are all my enemies.  They will turn back and be put to shame quickly.”  It is rather remarkable here that everything has turned around.  The Lord has turned from facing away from David to facing toward him.  His enemies turn away from facing him and now face away in terror.  David’s terror has passed, and his enemies are terrified before the Lord.  While the reversal did not happen in an instant or the course of a few minutes, the Lord turns everything around.  Even the last sentence shows this with wordplay that cannot be translated into English.  The words for “turn back” and “be put to shame” share the same basic letters in Hebrew, but the order flips around here.  Even the words themselves emphasize this great reversal!

Christians should therefore pray this psalm in the midst of all their troubles.  “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).  Though we suffer justly for our sin, the fire of God’s discipline purifies rather than consumes, and through it we will offer up sacrifices of prayer and praise in righteousness (Malachi 3:3).

“Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth, for the Lord has an indictment against His people, and He will contend with Israel” (Micah 6:1-2). Moses, like Micah, had also called heaven and earth as witness against Israel. Choose life, that you and your offspring may live (Deuteronomy 30:19)! But Israel has not chosen life, but rather the way of death.

The language of “indictment” is, of course, a legal term. The Lord has brought a suit against His faithless people. Assyria must come as a punishment, which Micah clarifies in the previous chapter, but now the legal reasoning of this judgment is laid bare. God brought His people out of Egypt, out of the iron furnace (Deuteronomy 4:20; 1 Kings 8:51). He sent Moses and Aaron (Psalm 106:26-36), and their sister Miriam the prophetess (Exodus 15:20). When Balak sought to curse, Balaam spoke a word of blessing contrary to his will (Numbers 22-24; Deuteronomy 23:4-5; Joshua 24:9-10; Nehemiah 13:2; 2 Peter 2:15), despite his idolatry which even later proved a snare (Numbers 31:16; Revelation 2:14). But what has Israel done in return? She has whored after idols, from the Baal of Peor in Shittim (Numbers 25) to their godless and false worship in Gilgal (Hosea 12:11).

Micah, under the weight of this great accusation, therefore asks the question of a soul realizing the depths of sin: “What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? His three questions, increasing in severity, point to the fruitlessness of any manmade way. Burnt offerings, though commanded by God, will not take away sin (Hebrews 10:4). They do not save in and of themselves, in some magical fashion, but point to the blood of Christ which alone takes away sin. Even thousands upon thousands of rams and ten thousand rivers of oil cannot accomplish this. Nor can sacrificing even what is most dear, a child, count for anything when it comes to righteousness before the all holy God. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul” (Matthew 16:26)?

Micah’s injunction to do “what is good,” therefore, is not a call to make amends with God through obedience. He has just expressly rejected such a conclusion with the three previous questions. Rather, he calls Israel as a defendant to do what she should already be doing. It is not a word spoken to an unbeliever, but one who knows the will of God already, though he is not following it as he ought. It is a call to return to the way things should be already, for “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).

The reading for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity comes from near the very end of Genesis as well as the end of the “generations of Jacob” which began in Genesis 37:2.  Joseph’s brothers continue to feel guilty about how they treated him.  When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers earlier, he emphasized that “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).  However, after they had settled in Egypt and Israel died, their guilt returns, imagining that Joseph had been biding his time out of respect for his father.  They even attempt to frame their plea as if Jacob had commanded it, which does not appear to be the case.

Their fear, however, is faithless.  Joseph had already forgiven them when he revealed himself to them, but they have forgotten.  It is not groundless, to be sure, considering their horrific conduct toward their own brother, but to return to such fear of punishment after hearing a word of forgiveness is to treat that word as false.  As John says, “Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son” (1 John 5:10).  “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (Deuteronomy 6:16).  In a similar way, Joseph’s brothers are treating him like a liar, which moves him to tears.

Joseph, nevertheless, reaffirms the word of forgiveness, because the sinful soul is often tempted with memories of past sins.  “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).  “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench; He will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:3).  A Christian troubled by doubts should be pointed to Christ, rather than to himself, and he will see that Jesus is indeed faithful.  Joseph’s brothers have forgotten and have returned to their fear, but they are pointed again to that mercy.

Because Joseph reiterates the same word of comfort from before, he also re-emphasizes the Providence of the Lord.  Paul’s affirmation “that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28) demonstrates that God is not limited.  The temptation is to regard Providence as using primarily those things which we regard as “good” or perhaps focusing on God’s direct actions in history.  Evil, in that sense, tends to be treated as a problem to be dealt with or acted against.  The Lord, to be absolutely sure, is not the author of sin.  But God is not limited in His options.  God will accomplish what He chooses to do without fail, even if He wills to use an evil as the means to that end.  Adam fell because of his own sin and became a lawbreaker, but the Lord uses the Fall toward His purpose of sending Christ into the flesh.  “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:7).

In Joseph’s case, the Lord uses the evil which his brothers intended against him as the means for providing for many people.  History does not just happen and the Lord somehow reacts to it.  God is the Lord of history, and all things fall under His Providence.  The reason why this can be so difficult for us is that we only have a small part of the picture and imperfect knowledge.  We are caught up in the moment and cannot see how everything is working together.  Very often, this becomes clearer in hindsight, though not always, because only God knows all things.

But this should not cause us to fear.  Joseph comforts his brothers by pointing to the Providence of God.  Yes, their action was very evil, but they recognize it as the sin that it is (1 John 1:8-9).  However, despite their wickedness, God uses it for a far greater good.  Not as an afterthought, not as a reaction, but as the means through which many lives were spared in the famine which it pleased the Lord to send.  If the Triune Lord could use even that evil as a means for good, will He not much more give you the good which He promises to give?  “So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:21).

Date: April 19, 1935

Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.Luke 23:34

As we page through the life stories of distinguished leaders in human affairs, we may well pause to study their last utterances. These valedictories to life reveal that the great have not always died great. How often in broken words, whispered by faltering, death-marked lips, have men gasped their craving to inflict cruel suffering, or, driven by hate-swollen revenge, shrieked for blood in their last breaths!

There was Herod, calculating murderer, who decreed that most brutal of all slaughters, the massacre of the innocent babes at Bethlehem. When he lay in his death­struggle and knew that at the end of his despotic reign wild rejoicing would rock the kingdom, he was determined to have his funeral marked with dirge and lament. So in the last moments of his waning strength he sought to wreak his fury upon his enemies by decreeing that they be locked in the arena of Jericho and killed immediately after his death.

When Harun-al-Raschid, calif of a magnificent empire, came down haggard and groaning on his death-bed, a rebel general was dragged before him. Marshaling his drooping energies, this leader of the Mohammedan world shrieked: “Dog! May Allah curse you! If I had only breath for two words, I would say, ‘Kill him!’ May Allah bear me witness that I vow that you shall perish, suffering as no one ever has before!” Within an hour not the official executioner, but the royal butcher was summoned into the death-chamber; and as the dying Harun-al-Raschid looked on in sadistic delight, the captive general was cut to pieces alive, the flesh stripped from the bones of his body.

Now, these songs of dying hatred are not restricted to ancient history, when royal fiends commanded that vanquished enemies be thrown on their funeral pyres. We witness the same spectacles of death-bed depravity in the world that surrounds us. Here is a criminal, led to the gallows, who leaves as his last legacy a string of blood­curdling curses upon mankind in general and upon his captors and executioners in particular. Here is a father breathing his last, but rallying long enough to disinherit an estranged son or to refuse a distant daughter the privilege of kneeling at his bedside. Here are the harrowing death scenes in which desperate atheists and infidels leap into the night of eternity with the thunder of hell upon their lips.

But this noon, as we commemorate the darkest day of all history, we are to recall the benediction of a dying Martyr. We are to hear a prayer uttered in the agony of a tortured soul and a racked body, that has pronounced its blessing upon multiplied millions. We are to stand in spirit on Calvary’s brow and hear our own divine and perfect High Priest breathe His dying prayer for our pardon.

THE GOOD FRIDAY APPEAL

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

AN APPEAL OF HEAVEN-WIDE MERCY

This prayer of the dying Christ seems to have been the first of the seven sacred utterances from the cross. As the nails of death crushed through the hands that had been raised in heavenly benediction and lacerated the feet that had led the Savior on holy errands of mercy; as the morbid spectators mingled their cries of derision with the profanity of the Roman executioners and the stinging rebukes of the Jewish churchmen, Christ’s pleading petition, hardly audible above the din and turmoil of the crucifixion, penetrated to the tribunal of heaven and pleaded for forgiveness, not for Himself, but for His enemies.

Others in the throes of death have implored Heaven’s mercy upon themselves and have rightly prayed: “Father, forgive me!” Charles IX, the craven king, who presided over the dripping shambles on St. Bartholomew’s Night, when thousands of his subjects were cut down in a bloody religious massacre, shrieked in frenzied horror as he faced eternity: “What blood, what murders, what evil counsels, have I followed! O my God, pardon me and have mercy on me if Thou canst!” But Christ’s plea is not: “Father, forgive Me,” but, “Father, forgive them”; and that prayer comes from the soul of one whose entire life was an uninterrupted demonstration of perfect holiness, whose absolute sinlessness could not be discredited even by the perjury of malicious conspirators. And with death approaching, He prays not for Himself, not even for His friends, but—wonder of wonders—for His enemies!

We pay our homage to those who have sunk into the eternal slumber with a final word of love and blessing for their fellow-men. We are thrilled by the lingering love shown in the last moments of life by missionaries who plead with fervent entreaty for their converts, by parents who rally their ebbing strength for a last benediction upon their children, by the nation’s dying heroes whose last words have invoked blessings upon their homeland. But here on the cross the eyes of faith behold the Lord of creation, the incarnate God, the Redeemer of the race, the Holy One, whose every purpose was the purest, whose service to weak, short-sighted sinful men was always unreserved self-giving, whose thoughts were deliberate purposes of grace, whose words were comfort-laden messages of truth, and whose deeds were the divine proof of Heaven’s unquenchable love; and in the travail of that sorrow unto death He thinks in this first word not of Himself, not of the tearing, festering, burning wounds, not of His bleeding back, His bruised face, His thorn-crowned head; not of the mockery, the scorn, the cutting taunts, of snarling hatred. He forgets even His abysmal God-forsakenness and the overpowering weight of humanity’s sins that crush Him into the blackest death. Pushing all the base, earth-shaking ingratitude aside, the Son of God, in this exhibition of His divine love, prays—for His enemies!

What an overpowering demonstration there is in all this of that sublime truth which Jesus had given to the world as His new ordinance: “Love your enemies!” Other religious leaders have preached sword and fire and cruel death to those who dared oppose their selfish programs. Even the disciple whom Jesus loved was so obsessed by an ingrained aversion to the unbelieving Samaritans that he ran to Christ and urged Him to invoke burning destruction from the clouds upon those recalcitrant half-breeds. Our own spiritual emotions are often warped by bigotry, surcharged with personal hatred, blinded by carnal bias. But it is Christ, and He alone, who rises over the sordid selfishness of passion-bound men to declare: “Pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” And to show us that He practised what He preached, that He Himself maintained the high ideals that He demands of us, our Savior not only taught this love, not only lived this love,—He died this love!

Think of the wide, all-embracing reach of His dying compassion. His intimate pleading to the Lord of heaven “Father, forgive them” embraces the Roman legionnaires who had just driven the nails of death through His quivering flesh, these worldly-wise, calloused, judicial murderers. His beseeching “Father, forgive them” includes the vacillating populace of Jerusalem that overnight almost had changed the loud acclaim of its hosannas into the venomous “Crucify Him!” His heaven-moving “Father, forgive them” is uttered in behalf of the false witnesses, the fanatical zealots among the Pharisees, the jealous high priests, the proud, self-esteemed Sanhedrin, coarse-minded, unprincipled Pilate. All who raised a blaspheming voice or lifted a murderous hand against the Christ of God are comprehended in this unlimited, unrestricted, unqualified plea for pardon: “Father, forgive them.”

Yet not these alone. In His boundless love Christ’s mercy extends to all the race, steeped as it is in the rankling hatred of everything holy. Never has history known an amnesty so universal in its forgiving power; never a treaty of peace which, like this, has included all the nations of the earth; never a pledge of pardon spoken upon a doomed soul that is so universally applicable to all the children of men as this plea of our dying Savior for a hostile world. Hurdling the barriers that segregate men into conflicting racial groups, breaking down the walls that separate clashing nationalities, Christ’s prayer would gather all of humanity throughout all history under its benediction. Men may be destitute of wealth; they may be underprivileged in respect to the opportunities of life; they may lack mental brilliance and be deprived of health; they may even be obliged to surrender the liberty and the pursuit of happiness which the Declaration of Independence regards as among the certain and inalienable rights with which all men are endowed; but because “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” this holy pleading of a dying Savior enfolds all generations of all men in its everlasting, world-encircling “Father, for­ give them.”

Remember, this dying plea for forgiveness is not prompted by any sorrow or penitence on the part of Christ’s enemies; it is not an answer to prayers from contrite hearts; it is no pardon spoken in anticipation of later repentance; it is purely Heaven’s deepest, highest, widest mercy, imploring forgiveness for the most heinous sin of all times. No conditions are attached to this plea. The dying Savior does not ask: “Forgive them if they perform these rites, speak these ritual words, earn these prescribed merits.” In the grandeur of His heavenly love He demands no qualifications, insists upon no prerequisites, but pleads the unconditioned petition, “Father, forgive them.”

Nor should we overlook the wealth of solace in this motive of mercy: “For they know not what they do.” It is an evident doctrine of the Scriptures that those who sin in ignorance shall receive less punishment than those who wilfully rebel against better knowledge. Jesus Himself declares: “That servant which knew his Lord’s will and prepared not himself, neither did according to His will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not and did commit things worthy of stripes shall be beaten with few stripes.” Again, reflecting on the tragic fact that the citizens of Galilean cities had rejected His overtures of grace although they were privileged to see His miracles and hear His words, He cried out: “Woe unto thee, Chorazin! Woe unto thee, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which have been done in you, they had a great while ago repented, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the Judgment than for you.” Thus does God temper justice. But in this word from the cross Jesus goes even farther. He pleads not for a less severe punishment because of their ignorance, but He directly asks God to forgive them this transgression, the most heinous sin of all history. Now, we have no Scriptural authority which entitles us to generalize and to declare that sins committed unawares are exempt from retributive judgment; for our transgressions are pardoned and our sins removed, whether they be done in ignorance or against better instruction, only when our eternal High Priest fulfils Isaiah’s prophetic promise and stands before the bar of justice to make “intercession for the transgressors.” Yet this we do know, that here on Calvary, the focal point of human hopes, Christ adds mercy to mercy and not only raises His voice in behalf of His murderers, He even bases that petition on their ignorance. Others may insist upon the letter of the law or demand the sixteen ounces of their pound of flesh, but these words, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” are the halo of Heaven’s mercy in its highest, fullest radiance.

Here, then, is the very heart and center of the Good Friday message. In the pain of this crucifixion, more agonizing than the worst that disease, accident, murder, persecution, war, oppression, in their totality have inflicted upon men, in the death Christ died for all mankind, we have not merely a touching symbol of self-sacrificing love, not only an exalted example of loyalty to high ideals, not simply a magnificent picture of unswerving devotion to a high-souled principle. Pushing these wilful evasions aside, the appeal of the Savior’s day of death would penetrate into our hearts and souls with the seal and assurance of the Scriptural promises that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself”; that, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”; that “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities”; so that, when Christ cried, “It is finished,” the price for the redemption of our souls and the ransom for sin had been paid and our title to the heavenly mansions sealed forever.

AN APPEAL FOR THE SPIRIT OF CHRIST’S COMPASSION

Need I remind you, then, that this day of all days is the time for repentance, for heart-deep sorrow over our sins; that Good Friday calls for a spiritual inventory, in which, as we prostrate ourselves before the holy God, recognizing the appalling guilt of the sins that drove Christ to Calvary, we ask ourselves whether in the hurry and worry of life as we live it today our faith in Christ is a quickening power within us; whether we love the Crucified with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might?

There is no more striking evidence of our devotion to Him who loved us first than this, that we apply the spirit of His “Father, forgive them” in the smaller issues of our own lives. Dying Stephen, his body bruised and broken under the impact of the jagged rocks, caught the vision of the opened heaven, with the Son of God sitting at the right hand of the Father, and remembering this plea of his dying Savior, his bleeding lips petitioned God: “Lay not this sin to their charge.” Paul found this conciliatory spirit, and although tracked and persecuted as few men have ever been, he wrote to the Roman Christians: “Bless them which persecute you; bless and curse not. . . . If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.” Now, I ask you as we pause this noon in the shadow of the cross, have we followed the example of the dying Savior? Have we kept close to the path that apostolic love has blazed for us? Distorted ideals brand this sacred duty of forgiveness and reconciliation as an impracticable delusion, a sign of effeminate weakness. The youth of the land finds its model in the fast-riding, swift-shooting hero, implacable in his sworn desire for revenge. Hysterical mobs take the law into their own hands and find satisfaction in lynching; paid propaganda enflames national and racial hatred to white heat; nations that should work together in cooperative harmony and achievement are split apart by artificially stimulated prejudices.

We might be inclined to repeat the Savior’s prayer for forgiveness on the basis of ignorance when we see a blind world that knows not Christ heedlessly following its own passion for revenge. But what can we say of ourselves, we to whom much has been given and of whom much will therefore be required, we who know Christ and have heard His intercession for sinners? Let us reflect for a moment in the hush of Good Friday and ask ourselves whether we have forgiven those who have offended us the “seventy times seven times” the Savior requires. It is one of the most depressing spectacles in all Christian experience to behold a church-member who prays “Forgive us our trespasses,” yet refuses to translate the “as we forgive those who trespass against us” into a life of peace and conciliation. Think of Christian congregations that are split into feudal factions; members of these churches who worship the same Lord of powerful forgiveness, who profess the same faith, and who are guided by the same hope, yet who live in pagan animosity. Above all, let us not overlook our own easily injured pride and our chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, our absurd and unchristian protestation that we are ready to forgive, but that we cannot forget.

It is not a pretty picture, this survey of human passions, and when compared with the holy example of our dying Savior, it is a vile and ugly portrayal of sin, raw and naked. As we prepare our hearts for the dawn of Easter joy and for the reception of the risen King, let us be strengthened by the realization that the plea from the cross, “Father, forgive them” was spoken for us. Let us implore the impulses and the strength of the Holy Spirit for a better, a richer, a holier life through our Savior. And as the dying thief, hearing this prayer, asked that he be remembered when the victorious Christ had entered His heavenly paradise, so let us beseech Christ for forgiveness and be strengthened by the Savior’s inviolable pledge: “Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” With the example and power of that grace let us even unto our last hour live and then die with this prayer for the forces of our hostile, antagonizing world, “Father, forgive them!” God grant it for the crucified Savior’s sake. Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.

Date: February 24, 1935

Come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.Isaiah 1:18

IF it were possible to have the host of our Christian friends who are now receiving this message cast a ballot to decide which in their opinion is the most beloved passage of the Old Testament, we should be safe in concluding that, together with David’s immortal Psalm of the Good Shepherd and Isaiah’s deathless fifty-third chapter, Christians from all parts of the country and even from the remote corners of the globe to which the short waves carry these words would acclaim the promise that I have just read to you as one of the most treasured of the merciful pledges in the Old Covenant.

This preeminence is not undeserved. The abrupt summons of God “Come now and let us reason together” rivets our attention; the contrast of colors, “scarlet,” “red,” “crimson,” opposed to the dazzling brightness of mountaintop snow or the stainless white of immaculate fleece, leaves its vivid impress upon us; and the electrifying change from guilt to innocence, from stain to purity, makes us breathe an ardent prayer of gratitude to God for this limitless love.

A court scene, a bar of justice, is portrayed in this startling passage. God’s people, as the opening verses of Isaiah’s poignant prophecies remind us, had proved itself ungrateful, spurned the mercy of Heaven, and loaded its national conscience down with heavy, damnable sins. Sinister days dawned upon Judah and Jerusalem, the nation that preferred foreign alliances to the pledged help of God, that substituted human programs for the divine direction by their sovereign Lord. Violence and crime stalked through the land unchecked; trade and industry were stagnant; agriculture was paralyzed; Israel was sore from head to foot, the country devastated, its glory gone.

In that crisis—and do you realize how the power and love of God is most strikingly manifest in the pivotal points of all history?—the summons of our text is issued: “Come now and let us reason together,” or, to bring the full force of the original Hebrew: “Come and let us take our case to court.” And here, as the apostate nation, answering this summons, cowers at the divine tribunal before the sentence of doom that it deserves and expects, this breath-taking decision of pardon and forgiveness resounds with the promise of hope and life: “Though your sins be as scarlet,” that is, if they are the deep, bloody sins of glaring guilt, “they shall be white as” the new-driven “snow”; they shall lose their hideousness and be washed of their vermilion stain. And then, to add assurance to assurance, the Lord gives the startled nation the repeated promise: “Though your sins be red like crimson,” the deepest red known to the art of the Orient, “they shall be as wool,” the immaculate fleece that pictures the stainless, blemishless color of innocence and purity.

It is an electrifying climax, this dramatic conclusion of God’s case against Israel. Yet it is not an isolated instance of Heaven’s mercy; it is rather an imperishable foundation-­fact of Christian faith that assumes majestic proportions particularly in the present crisis; for this verse of ancient prophecy has survived the ravages of twenty-six centuries to present to us the picture of our country with all its inhabitants

AT THE BAR OF DIVINE JUSTICE

and to tell us these two priceless truths: We still have the same pledge of this pardon; we still find the same magnificence of this grace.

WE STILL HAVE THE SAME PLEDGE OF THIS PARDON

Our country, proud in its self-sufficiency, has been subpoenaed to appear before God’s court in answer to the charges of moral and spiritual delinquency. We have been selfish in our relation to our fellow-men; we have been unbelieving and ungrateful in our relation to our God. Don’t blame the specters of these last, anxious, disquieting years, the ghastly tragedies that have banished much of the peace and tranquility which previously crowned this nation, on overproduction or underproduction, gold standards or silver standards, machine labor or hand labor, hoarding, or wasting, or on any of the many external causes regularly cited as the reasons for collapse. Whatever these factors may have contributed is only incidental to the basic charges which America must now answer before the bar of justice: selfishness, godlessness, sin.

Let us be clear on this one focal point. This is no time for minimizing our national and individual transgressions, for disguising iniquity, for excusing immorality. The ravages of crime and the prohibitive price we pay for the consequences of lawlessness present a scathing indictment. American cities are often dominated by gang rule; corruption in our political life is so frequent and deep-rooted that we have ceased to become alarmed at the new evidences of official dishonesty. American courts and jurists have never before retarded the course of true justice more successfully. American business must continually battle the inroads of moral bankruptcy, theft, and fraud. American homes that are too preoccupied for the Word and counsel of God; American amusement that caters to the lowest animal impulses; American books and magazines that revel in the sin and degeneracy of a decadent age,—all these combine to raise the charge that as a nation we have lived and played as though there were no God in heaven.

Now, since you and I and 125,000,000 more of us make up these United States, there is a personal and individual summons for every one of us in this divine subpoena: “Come now and let us reason together.” And when we hear this summons, every time we contemplate the holiness of God, every time His Law hurls its indicting charges against us, every time our conscience asserts its accusing voice, let us not deny our sin; for the Scriptures warn: “There is not a just man upon earth that doeth good and sinneth not.” Let us not join the modern trend of ridiculing sin; for the Sage of the Old Testament warns: “Fools make a mock of sin.” Let us not minimize sin, disguise sin, excuse sin, or ignore sin, but let us step before the bar of divine justice and plead an unhesitating, unreserved, unconditional “Guilty.”

I repeat: We have no defense—our guilt is written in large, indelible letters. Yet because of that unfathomable love with which God loved us “while we were yet sinners,” we know that here at the bar of justice, as the apostle assures us, “If any man sin, we have an Advocate,” a legal representative, “with the Father.” Our Intercessor is “Jesus Christ the Righteous.” In that fateful hour when the doom of the sinner, who is stained with the purple and scarlet of deep-dyed sins, is to be pronounced, our Advocate steps before the bar of God’s unswerving justice and pleads: “Father, I have borne their griefs and carried their sorrows. I was wounded for their transgressions; I was bruised for their iniquities; the chastisement which secured their peace was upon Me, and by My stripes they were healed.” And in the closing appeal our Advocate becomes our Substitute; and there on the rough, gory, barbarous cross the Son of God, crushed by the tugging, clutching, overpowering weight of all sins of all history, —that suffering, dying Savior of the world,—marshals all His vanishing strength; and His feeble, faltering lips gasp this plea, scarcely heard above the rumbling and the sullen jeers of His crucifiers: “Father, forgive them.” That dying gasp closes the case of humanity at the bar of divine justice. The Judge of the eternities rises to pronounce sentence. And—wonder of wonders!—because of the sin-atoning self-sacrifice of Christ His verdict is the same as that which is emblazoned in these letters of imperishable love: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

WE STILL FIND THE SAME MAGNIFICENCE OF HIS GRACE

Pause, then, to picture to yourself, as far as our puny intellect permits, the magnificence of this forgiving grace. Think first of all of the unlimited sweep of these words of pardon as they address themselves to all, regardless of the many and artificial barriers which we have erected to separate men almost as effectively as they are segregated in caste-ridden India. At the bar of justice it does not matter who you are, whether you belong to the blue-blooded Four Hundred or to the thin-blooded regiment of the hungry and homeless; your name may be in Who’s Who, or your finger prints may be on record at police headquarters;—all have this pledge: “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” It does not matter where you live, in a municipal lodging-house or in a South­land villa; it does not matter what your cultural status is—you may be a university graduate or an illiterate who has to sign his name with a cross; it does not matter what your past has been, whether you think you can join that earnest young man who once came to Jesus believing that he had kept all the requirements of God’s Law or whether you come as a prodigal who herded swine and fed on husks; whoever you are and whatever you are and wherever you are, in absolute disregard of every difference of race and color, position and authority, money and wealth, learning and culture,—God comes to all of you with this sacred pledge: “Though your sins be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

Think, too, of the free and unconditional offer of this magnificent grace. There is no semblance of any condition attached to these words. We do not read: “Your sins shall become as white as snow if you do something, if you say something, if you give something.” Take any and all religions that exclude Christ as the sin-atoning Savior, and you will find that the one prescribes a pilgrimage to this sacred tomb or to that holy city. Another regulates diet. A third insists that you must wear this clothing or perform that ceremonial rite. But all, whether you go back to the judgments of stern-visaged Osiris in ancient Egypt or forward to the requirements of the most ethical of our modern religious cults, unite in demanding salvation by character, by accomplishment, by human cooperation in some marked and essential degree. Yet here, at the bar of divine justice, we conclude with St. Paul “that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the Law”; here we learn that without money and without price, without character or contribution, without merit or worthiness, simply by the purest, freest, widest grace of which even Heaven conceived, we are granted the divine pledge of a pardon that is positive in its promise and unquestionable in its power.

Positive and unquestionable, I repeat, because here, at the bar of justice, there is a divine pledge, “Thus saith the Lord.” God speaks. Human promises are often lightly given and then quickly forgotten. Even the signed, sealed, and witnessed word of men of high repute and integrity may sometimes not be worth the paper on which it is recorded. Governmental assurances may be repudiated, as the last days have demonstrated. Even the assured results of scientific investigation may prove disappointing. Think of the prophecies of prosperity that have been issued as the result of careful analysis, but that are cruelly contradicted by the harsh realities of our day. Then take heart as you remind yourself that here are words of God, raised above all possibility of change or alteration. Here you have the one permanent pledge of eternity; for “heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.” Yes, “the mountains shall depart and the hills be removed; but My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of My peace be removed, saith the Lord.” Here, in short, is the absolute, unshaken foundation that can weather all the storms that may arise in your life; the bright beacon-light that remains undimmed amid the darkness of your particular problems; the truth of Heaven which will remain constant and unsullied in your heart and soul, even though the host of human errors rises to besiege it.

And there have been bitter attacks. In the latest translation of the Bible, the so-called American Bible, the very words of our text, against all the requirements of translation and the demands of Old Testament grammar, have been reduced to a question, robbed of their force, stripped of their promises, and changed into a sarcastic query. Can you imagine what would happen if each sentence of the Declaration of Independence were ended with a question­-mark, if the documents in our national archives were wilfully and savagely mutilated as the translators in Chicago have butchered this sacred word of God? Our country would be thrown into chaotic confusion. And I tell you that by changing divine promises into questions, divine pledges into cynical doubts, the souls of men would be plunged into a hideous nightmare of black spiritual despair, from which they could never even begin to recover.

I ask, then, that you who have experienced the undeserved mercy of God in Christ, which has miraculously washed your crimson, scarlet sins into white, stainless innocence, pledge yourselves to live in grateful acknowledgment of this renewing mercy. I ask that, before you leave this bar of justice where forgiveness has again been pronounced upon your soul, you raise your hand in the oath of allegiance and commit yourselves to this pledge: “With all the strength that God gives me, with all the powers of my intellect and resources, I will fight the good fight of faith for the upbuilding of Christ’s Church, for the defense of His Gospel, and for the defeat of damning, soul­-destroying error. So help me God!” Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.

Date: November 6, 1930?

Fools make a mock at sin, but among the righteous there is favor.Proverbs 14:9

ON a certain Monday morning, not so long ago, the four morning newspapers of New York City devoted an aggregate of 16,000 words to present summaries of forty­one sermons that had been preached on the preceding day from the pulpits of that metropolis. A close examination of these sermon summaries reveals the astounding fact that with but one exception the word sin was used neither directly nor indirectly. A visitor from Mars, reading these newspaper items, listening to the many “inspirational” sermons of our day, or taking the current issue of a well­ known magazine and finding in the index an article on “The Vanishing Sinner” would doubtless come to the conclusion that here on this North American continent and in our large metropolitan areas the Utopia of the golden age had been found in which sin was outlawed and crime tabu.

Indeed, sin is the most unpopular of all subjects for discussion today, when people love to dwell lingeringly on the inherent goodness of man or try to disguise the hideousness of sin, sugar-coat its bitterness, and explain away its vicious nature under the masquerade of dishonest phraseology. Thus today psychological theories are often substituted for the Ten Commandments. In our current vocabulary a man who uses profanity and abuses the high and holy name of God is said to show “bad taste.” A “racketeer” whose ruthless machine gun sweeps down an innocent pedestrian suffers under a series of “complexes.” A child that refuses to obey its parents is coddled as a “self-expressionist.” Young people who disregard the requirement of premarital chastity claim to enjoy the “new freedom of our new age,” while those who do observe this chastity are said to suffer from “inhibitions.” It’s Not Our Fault, a recent book, is one of the latest literary attacks on the stark reality of personal sin. “Priests Discover Sin, and Theologians Give It Names” is the title of one of the chapters; and the burden of this “handbook for the militantly intelligent” is that there is no absolute basis on which any specific act can be labeled “sin.” It is, the reader is assured, the animal inheritance of animal origin. And behind all of these new and sometimes formidable theories and expressions by which sin often appears “as an angel of light,” to use the words of St. Paul, lies the unwillingness to accept the plain, unswerving statements of the Bible.

Our text tonight speaks out in sharp protest against this palpable perversion and tells us in the inspired wisdom of Proverbs, “Fools make a mock at sin.” And truly, the denial or the ridicule of sin is one of the supreme follies of that farcical philosophy of unbelief that disfigures our modem existence. For the Scriptures, the highest of all high authorities, indeed the only authority in matters of doctrine and morals, employ the most clear and definite tones in rejecting this damnable delusion that there is no sin, or that, if there is, it is not of very great consequence.

THE STARK REALITY OF DAMNING SIN.

Looking to the Bible, we find that in the pages of the Old Testament alone there are more than a dozen different terms that describe sin and wrong, that these words altogether occur more than 2,000 times in the Hebrew sacred writings, and that in the New Testament there is a long array of words in frequent occurrence which similarly express sin. Now, if we remind ourselves that the Bible in thousands of passages thus definitely refers to sin in its various forms as to a hideous reality, who is there that can rise up to shake his puny little fist against this mountain of truth and insist that there is no sin? Who is there that can raise his quavering voice against the reverberating thunder of these words of Scripture to prove that man is naturally good and noble and pure? Our text answers, Only a fool can thus “make a mock at sin”; only one who stubbornly contradicts the truth and to whom, because of this wilful contradiction, the denunciation of St. John applies, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”

How thoroughly do our everyday experiences illustrate this Biblical truth, that men are “the servants of sin”! The strange irony in this denial and belittling of sin is seen in the glaring contradiction that just at the time when men have ruled sin out of existence, we find such flooding crime waves, such wide-spread lawlessness, such increasing disregard of authority, that for the first time in our national history a President of the United States has officially called into being a national crime commission. More divorces, more robberies, more murders, more deeds of impurity, more small and large thievery—more sin than ever before in the glittering, golden age in which we live! Again, only a fool can mock at the rushing, sweeping force of such compelling evidence.

But many people readily admit the existence of sin and yet mock at it by following the Pharisee into the temple of their own self-sufficiency and arrogantly thanking God that they are not “as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers”; by engaging in that wide-spread pastime of patting themselves on their shoulders, asking themselves, “What is the matter with me?” and answering with cool complacency and smug self-satisfaction, “I am all right.” But, again, what does the Bible say? Listen to this: “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God”; “They have all gone aside, they have all together become filthy; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.” There you have the Biblical statements, penned in the strongest and most direct language in which human thought may be clothed, statements that leave no room for exemption or exception, but which include every man, woman, and child that ever lived or that ever will live upon the face of this wide earth. Indeed, the Scriptures tell each one of us directly and unhesitatingly that we are burdened by a twofold kind of sin: first, the original and hereditary sin, of which our Lord speaks when He declares, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,”—that is, the consequence of the sin committed by our first parents, who disobediently rose up against God; and then, the sins that men commit of themselves, which the great apostle enumerates in his long catalog under the heading, “The Works of the Flesh” and which he describes as “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like.”

To emphasize the truth of the Scriptures when they call you and me and all our fellow-men sinners, there is that unmistakable voice of conscience that heaps up before our mind’s eye all the sins of omission and commission which abound in every human existence. One day they brought to our Lord a woman taken in the act of adultery. But when Jesus challenged her self-righteous accusers, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her,” we read that the hard-hearted, stiff-necked Pharisees were “convicted by their own conscience” and left without hurling their stones. And today the conscience, that restless, assertive monitor, is both direct and personal testimony to the folly of mocking at sin.

But very often there is only a vague and hazy idea as to what sin is. People will readily grant that deeds of violence, highway robbery, murder, and sexual perversions are sinful; but they often overlook the finer and less violent forms of wrong-doing, particularly the thoughts and words that spring from impure and sinful motives. This is one of the most popular of all modern mockeries, which leads men to parade themselves as paragons of virtue, because, not being severely tempted to despicable acts of sin, they have refrained from indulging in overt and scandalous fractures of the moral code. But once again the Bible leaves no doubt as to the fact that even desires and impulses may be, and often are, sinful and wrong. The definition of sin in the Catechism, “Sin is every transgression of the divine Law in desires, thoughts, words, and deeds,” is entirely Scriptural; for Jesus uses a large part of the Sermon on the Mount to tell those who regard only the consummate act of murder and adultery as sin that even the thought of hate or impurity, even a glance of anger or lust, is a direct and complete fracture of the Law, so that anything that directly or indirectly militates against the holiness of God, anything that is destructive of our neighbor’s or of our own welfare, either in the expression of word or in the impulse of thought,—all this is sin, disgraceful, degenerating, damning sin.

I consciously say damning sin; for if men have been guilty of the folly of endeavoring to rule sin out of existence, they naturally have not shrunk back from the parallel mockery of attempting to eradicate the punishment of sin. “Be not deceived, God is not mocked,” is a text that fits very appropriately into the modern tendency to laugh away the specter of the punishment of sin. But there is not a more demonstrable fact than the stern reality of the terrifying devastation of sin. I could stand before this microphone for hours and cite to you cold and impartial figures which would show the terrific ravages of sin; I could quote the professional verdicts of physicians in regard to the fearful consequences of the sins of impurity; I could show you that sin robs a man of his self-respect, that it has shortened the life and blasted away the happiness of millions, that it has destroyed kingdoms and nations. The most blatant mockery cannot laugh away such evidence.

Yet all this, even in its most intense and horrifying form, shrinks into the infinitesimal when compared with the final disaster that always follows in the wake of unforgiven sin, and that is death,—not merely the inevitable end of life that awaits every one of us, but particularly the state of spiritual death in the hell that modern enlightenment frantically tries to destroy. What, then, is the result of sin? The Bible warns us, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” And again, “The wages of sin is death.” There, in plain and unmistakable terms, you have a direct expression of the appalling extreme to which sin, as a violation of the will and Law of a just and holy God, can lead—first of all, to a separation from God, then to punishment in the form of affliction and death, and finally to the despair of an endless, hopeless eternity of darkness. Who is there that can make a mock at such terrifying realities? Our text echoes, “Only a fool.”

THE FATHOMLESS FAVOR OF GOD.

We can understand, then, that men have sought both for the forgiveness of sins and for the power to counteract sin. And it is a wonderful and comforting message that we read in the second statement of our text, “Among the righteous there is favor.” Yes, as we know, not from man’s reason, but from the revelation of a gracious God in His Word, there is divine favor, there is forgiveness of our sins, there is the immeasurable love of God, that prompted Him to send the “one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus,” who “gave Himself as a ransom for all.” There, in that wondrous Gospel­message, that “He became sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteoumess of God in Him,” in the record of that world-moving transaction, “He hath purchased us with His own blood,” in that promise of purification, that this blood, “the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin,” is the invitation that goes out tonight, addressed to all who may hear these words, to turn away from sin and to come to Christ, not in reliance upon your own accomplishments (for after all, how few and small and unworthy they are!), but trusting solely in the merit of Jesus’ blood and righteousness, in the fathomless favor of God.

It is in His Word that we find further favor—the power to check and restrain sin, that power for which anxious men have sought so long and so vainly. They look about them in this world of vice and crime; they read of the appalling increase in the penal population of our country and of the disastrous losses that follow in the wake of sin; and they ask, “How can we check sin? How can we limit and restrict its frequent and destructive occurrence?” One expert tells us that we need more laws; but the experience of the past years has shown that the more laws there are, the more there are broken. Another expert says we need more education; but experience again tells us that a college degree is no diploma for morality. An uneducated thief will go down to the freight-yard and steal a ride, but an educated thief will steal the whole railway system. Another tells us that we need gland operations and similar services of surgeons; but everybody knows that some of the most brutal criminals have been of almost perfect physique. No, something else is necessary if there is to be a really effective restraint of sin. The Bible tells us what that something else is: the favor of God, which offers the regenerating, reconstructing power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is this dynamic, indescribable, miraculous power of which the great apostle speaks when he assures us, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”

Thus, while sin has led us to behold the ugliest thing on earth, that which has engulfed human existence in immeasurable woes and made men suffer horror, misery, and anguish beyond computation, we have also been privileged to hold out to the world tonight the favor of God, the most sublime message that human ears can ever hear, the promise that “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life,” the message of that all-embracing, never-failing, everlasting, and universal love of God in Jesus Christ. This is God’s gift, as our text puts it, to the “righteous,” to those who, coming to Jesus just as they are, find in His blood and righteousness their beauty and their glorious dress and thus are adjudged righteous by God. They are those who, spurning every claim to their own righteousness or to the righteousness of others, but believing, trusting, in Him whose promises never fail, pray with patient confidence: —

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in Thee!

Let the water and the blood

From Thy riven side which flowed

Be of sin the double cure,

Cleanse me from its guilt and power.

Can you pray that prayer? Are you hidden in the cleft Rock of Ages? Are you cleansed from the guilt and power of sin? God grant it for Jesus’ sake! Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.