Sexagesima 2018

February 4, 2018 A+D
St. Luke 8:4-15

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The parable of the Sower is a parable about what modern Lutheran theologians term the “visible Church” and the “invisible Church.” By visible Church we mean the outward reality that we can see with our eyes and judge, that which appears to be the Church. We cannot see into the hearts of men. So we do not know, strictly speaking, who is a true believer and who is not, but we can see and judge “an outward communion in the means of grace.”[1]

This confession of a visible and an invisible Church is not a confession of two churches. There is only one Church but we can’t quite see it. Our sight and judgment are severely limited both by our mortality and also by our sin.

The language of visible and invisible is mean to confess two realities hidden from our sight. The first is that there can be hypocrites who appear to be Christian but who lack faith and aren’t true members of the Church. We can be fooled by them. They belong only to the outward fellowship and appear to be Christians. We judge only by what we can hear and see and not what we can’t. So even though they do not belong to Christ Himself since no man is saved apart from faith even if he goes through the motions, receives the Sacraments, or is utterly sincere, we count them as Christians. Such persons belong to the visible Church, but not the invisible but we accept them as Christians because we have only the evidence of their confession and life.

The second reality is that there can be, and there are, believers who trust God’s promises in the Gospel who are not part of the visible Church. We can and we do judge their doctrine which is confused. We rightly condemn false teaching, but we do not make a judgment as to their salvation. All those who trust the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ are true Christians even if they are confused about various doctrines or otherwise incapable of making a pure confession. We cannot see their faith. We can see their lacking confession so we know that they are not members of the visible church according to what we can see. They are, nonetheless, and most importantly, members of the true Church and we will learn of them and our brotherhood, joyously, on the Last Day.

Thus understood Redeemer and the Missouri Synod are part of the visible Church. If you judge that they aren’t, then you need to deal with it and find a Church and a Church body that is. What I mean when I say that we are part of the visible church is not either that no but the Missouri Synod gets to heaven nor that everyone in the Missouri Synod gets to heaven. I only mean that we are in outward communion in the means of grace which is to say that we are in agreement, together, on the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as revealed in Holy Scripture and expressed in the means of grace. Together we are striving to live according to it and to remain faithful to what has been revealed to us in Scripture.

So this is in no way a bit of self-congratulation. To be part of the visible church, that is an outward fellowship, is not salutary in and of itself. No man is saved apart from faith. It appeared, in the moment, that the great crowd that gathered around Jesus when He told the parable was in the visible Church, but it soon became apparent that they were not true believers. Jesus saw into their hearts. We can’t do that. He knew that some of them would succumb to temptation and fall away. He knew that some were never really believing and hearing His Word. Thus He issued the parable. “Do not,” He says, “neglect the Word of God or you are a hypocrite and you will fall away.” Being a member of the visible church, by itself, is not enough. Yet, at the same time, being a member of the visible church is necessary because there we are tied to the Word that sustains faith.

You should examine yourself and you should repent. You are not, however, a hypocrite simply because you struggle to believe, because you have doubts, or because you sin. The world often mistakes honest confession and repentance with hypocrisy. They think that being a hypocrite means to say one thing and do another. They say, “Why do you condemn drunkeness and say that it is a sin and yet still get drunk? You are hypocrite because you do not live up to your ideals and we are free to despise you.” In fact, a person who condemns sin but falls prey to it is a not a hypocrite. He is a sinner.

On this side of glory, all Christians are sinners. They are not hypocrites. They rightly condemn sin because they love God and trust in His Word. They believe that God’s Law is good. They want to follow it. To say that this is hypocrisy would be like calling today’s Super Bowl losers hypocrites. Didn’t they say that they wanted to win? Didn’t they try to win and fail? What a bunch of hypocrites!

That is ridiculous. A hypocrite is not a person who says one thing and does another. A hypocrite is a person who says one thing while presenting himself to the world as though he believes it and is sincere, but who doesn’t actually believe it. A hypocrite in the visible church is no Christian, but he acts like one. A hypocrite in the Church does not live an openly hedonistic and sinful life. Rather he conforms to a public standard for the sake of his reputation and not for the sake of faith. That is the way of death.

Christians struggle with sin. They sometimes fall prey to it. They might even commit horrendous and terrible acts in moments of passion but they don’t remain in it. It is one thing to become angry and say terrible things to your wife. You shouldn’t do that. It offends God. It hurts her. But it is another thing to hire an attorney and file for divorce and to keep on saying terrible things that violate your vows and mock the Holy Marriage that Christ has built and made by His Word. The Bible says: “Be angry but do not sin” and also “Do let the sun go down on your anger.”

Christians sin. As they sin they continue to repent. They continue to make amends, to struggle and to hear God’s Word. They come back to the Church for forgiveness and strength. They come to the place where God promises to be not because they are perfect like God is perfect, but because He is trustworthy and faithful. They want what He has promised to give even as they want to keep and obey His Law. This is what it is to be rooted, to be in good soil. It is remain in His Word and Sacraments and to submit to His good and gracious will. This is why God has given us the visible Church – a place for us to receive these things and stay in the faith.

Not everything in the parable is happy. Christians must contend against the devil, the world, and their sinful nature. Jesus is speaking to a great crowd that is doing the right thing in an outward way. They appear to be listening to Him. That is good but not all believe. He is warning them, chiding and rebuking them, not only those who do not believe, but also those whose faith is shallow and not rooted in the Word.

Some mistakenly think that because God is all powerful He cannot be resisted. This is true if we are talking about God’s uncovered majesty and glory such as we will see on the Last Day. Then when says to the sheep, “Come, blessed of My Father and receive the Kingdom prepared for you” all the sheep will march right in. There will not be any resisting. But it is not true that God’s Word is irresistible as He comes to us now in the means of grace. There He can be resisted. When God deals with us now according to His Word such as when He says, “Come unto Me” or “Take and eat” it can be resisted, even rejected. And when it is, faith is in peril and when faith is in peril so is the soul.

The parable is a warning and promise. While Christians face many capable foes in the world, the Word of God is trustworthy and steadfast. It delivers what it promises. There is power here for faith, for a life of repentance and joy. The Sowers sows. His Word takes root and grows and bears a harvest in the harshest of conditions, transforming bad soil into good, declaring sinners righteous. The obverse of “Don’t neglect the gathering of the saints, the Word of God, the absolution, and the Holy Communion” is “Here is where God promises to be for you. Though the visible Church is afflicted by both imperfect people and even occasional hypocrites, here is where faith is born and maintained. The means of justification are also the means of sanctification. Here, in earthen vessels, is not mere strength for the Day but strength for eternity.”

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.


[1]          Marquart, The Church, 10.

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