Racine, WI Circuit Reformation
October 29, 2017 A+D
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a bit of a problem with the ESV’s treatment of today’s Gospel. It tells us that Jesus told the Jews who had believed in Him that if they abide in His Word they are truly His disciples. The problem is that word “had.” He told this to the Jews who had believed in Him. In English, we frequently use the perfect tense to mean that something has stopped. That is why, even though it is technically accurate, my wife does not approve of my telling people either that “I had been married” or that she is my first wife.
The perfect tense works differently in Greek. It is used almost exclusively to mean something that was begun in the past, like a marriage, but which still stand as a present reality. To get a bit fancy on you, it is punctiliar durative. It started at a certain point and is still going on. Jesus uses the same grammatical form for His statement from the cross. Imagine if we translated that the way the ESV translates this. It would mean that Jesus said, “It was finished.” That won’t do. That isn’t what He said or meant.
This is a bad translation even if it is not technically false. It might make the old people feel superior, but yes, the King James got it right. This is a bad translation because Jesus is not talking to people who have already stopped believing in Him. He is talking to people who believe in Him but whose faith is shallow and is in danger.
You might think I am being a bit fussy about this. Maybe I am. But this matters because you should not get the false impression that Jesus isn’t talking to you. He is talking to you who believe in Him. He is issuing you a warning. It is possible to fall away. It is possible to become enamored with the world and our flesh and to neglect His Word. Only those who abide, who remain, in His Word are His actual disciples.
The entire scene that follows, the argument about whether or not those people had ever been slaves or were the legitimate descendants of Abraham or not demonstrates that they were not abiding in His Word. Instead they were demanding Him on their own terms and within a paragraph or so they have lost their faith. They believed in Him only for a flashing moment, probably because of the miracles or because He was interesting and entertaining or they thought it’d be hip to be rebels and stick it to the Pharisees for a while, but they weren’t actually listening. They were like plants that sprung up in rocky soil but they thought they were redwoods. In fact, they had no root. They bore no fruit. They only had tradition and heritage and they took it for granted. They were not His actual disciples. Their faith, without an anchor or nourishment, vacated their hearts and left room for seven demons worse than the first. All this because they would not listen. They would not abide in His Word. If His Word had found a place in them then they would not have sought to kill Him nor would they have vainly imagined that their ethnicity or their DNA would save them.
We must apply this warning to ourselves. It is possible to fall away. It is possible for Lutheran Schools and confirmation programs and congregations to be nothing more than heritage societies, for our bond to be nothing more than Anglicized umlauts and bratwurst. Those things are no anchor or root. We must abide in His Word. We must read it, study it, meditate upon, and pray it. If Sola Scriptura is nothing but a slogan, we are not truly Lutheran.
The Reformation’s call to justification by grace through faith, its insistence that Christ’s merit and ransom alone reckons sinners righteous and that this is precisely the mission of the Messiah and the heart of the Father, what God wants to do and who God is, all this is dependent upon the insistence that the Word of God is authoritative and clear. If it were not, how could one abide in it? And if we cannot abide in it, we are not only not actually Lutherans, worst of all we are not His disciples.
The written Scriptures are authoritative and clear. We can and we must abide in them. They have been breathed out by God, inspired, in order to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. That wisdom is the correct understanding of who God is, namely, that He is merciful and He has sent His Son to redeem and atone for us by His self- sacrifice on the cross and His upending of death through His resurrection. That wisdom and salvation, faith itself, is a gift from God bestowed through His Word, preached, read, and heard, which causes us, in the first place, to praise and glorify God alone, that is to acknowledge and worship Him as He truly is and wants to be known, according to His mercy. Justification by grace revealed in the Holy Scripture and bestowed upon faith is the beginning of understanding and enactment of the First Commandment. Those who do not abide in His Word, who deny justification by grace, are ultimately blasphemers.
This is what the angels mean when they say to the Shepherds “Glory be to God on high” and what Lutherans mean when they say: “To God alone be the glory.” It is not praise of His power and might as power and might are conventionally considered, but it is worship and praise of the power of His forgiveness, praise of God in the weakness of human flesh with no crib for a bed. It is praise for the love that God bestows as a gift upon men. Soli Deo Gloria is just as important of a slogan for the Reformation as Solus Christus, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide. They all hang together.
This then is our desire and prayer: not simply that we once believed in Christ but that we remain His disciples forever. Thus we ask that God would keep us in and by His Word. Let His Word have its way with us, let us flee to the refuge of the Holy Scriptures. There we hear God’s Voice. We know the Truth and are freed from the bondage of sin and the delusions of our minds. The Spirit works in the Word to reveal Christ according to His grace and mercy. It His Word. There He teaches us salvation. He teaches us to praise God. He dampens vice and inculcates virtue. He makes us His disciples. In His Word, the Physician of our souls applies the medicine of immortality. He makes us His disciples and in this we are more than the sons or heirs of Abraham, more than Lutherans. By grace, in truth, we are the very sons of God. May God in His mercy ever keep as such.
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.