The Mists are Lifted

timelapse cloudscape with bright sun shining with clouds passing.

If you were ever to borrow my copy of Charles Dickens’ classic novel Great Expectations, one hundred and sixty-seven pages into it—nearly at the end of chapter 19—you’d discover the following line underscored in pencil: “Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts.” Dickens scribbled those words into the protagonist’s mind. Pip is his name. Well, his nickname, that is. If you were to read a little further along, you’d find more of Pip’s thoughts underlined in pencil, leaving clues to his sadness. Riding along in a coach, he ponders, “I was better after I had cried, than before—more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.” And then Dickens tells us plainly the avenue Pip used to discover his painful awareness: Pip was deliberating “with an aching heart.”

In other words, sadness was not necessarily Pip’s enemy, but instead, a tool for discovering something better, a more honest sense of “self.” And the honesty led to more sunlit possibilities. Less than a paragraph later, Dickens uses the last lines of the chapter to demonstrate this literarily. He concludes, “and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.”

Like Dickens, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured a similar aspect of sorrow in his poem “The Rainy Day.” In between a few short lines describing intense grimness, he hints at the winds and rains as useful for clearing away lifeless debris. Resting there, he knows something far better behind the clouds, something promising. And so, he ends the poem accordingly:

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall.
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Dickens and Longfellow are onto something here. Being the season of Lent, their intuition is useful, even if only to describe the human condition relative to the hope God gives. For Dickens, sorrow leading to honest confession discovers hope. For Longfellow, a hopeful heart can see through the inevitable clouds and know something better is most certainly hovering there.

These are Christological things, and the scriptures speak very clearly to them.

For starters, Christians know the difference between attrition and contrition—that is, the difference between sorrow for getting caught and a heart that aches because we sinned against someone we truly love. Attrite sorrow produces shameful excuses intent on preserving what’s most important—the self. Contrition can’t bear the sadness it has brought to someone else, and its only aim is to fix it, while at the same time being willing to bear the consequences owed for the crime. Attrition is selfish sorrow. Contrition is sorrow born from love.

King David, a man who knew both forms, wrote by divine inspiration that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). But he didn’t jot those words before informing his readers that the “Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). In other words, God stands as close to the desolate sinner as anyone can. He is there. And He brings hope, the kind of hope that has a name—Jesus Christ. Through the person and work of Christ, hope takes shape beside us—for us—laboring to win our rescue from Sin’s despairing darkness, changing our attrite hearts into contrite ones.

God promised He’d do this. He announced, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). That’s incarnational language. That’s the heart of the God-man Jesus replacing our hearts of stone. With this Gospel-infused heart, we have ears to hear, know, and be comforted when the Lord says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27); or “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). We know what He means by these things.

He means He has won our salvation. The peace between God and Man that none of us could win has been accomplished by the Son of God on the cross. He has taken our sorrowful and burdensome yoke, placed it on His own shoulders, and given to us His yoke of righteousness. Recreated by this wonderful Gospel, as we face off with the winds and rains inherent to Sin, Death, and Satan—all sadness-inducing things they’d use to impose despair—a contrite heart is a hopeful one, and it stands ready to meet these turbulent accusations knowing that God stands right beside the confessor ready to give love as no one in this world ever could or would.

For the sorrowful, behind this world’s clouds, there’s always sunlight. Bearing the knowledge of forgiveness, the mists are lifted, and new life lay spread before us. Christ is its embodiment.

Again, today is the First Sunday in Lent. Whether the first or last Sunday, all of this is a part of Lent’s message. Listen carefully. It’s there. Know that in your penitential sorrow, a light is beaming. And even as it might appear to be snuffed out at Calvary, know it’s on the cross that it beams most brightly. Your hope is fulfilled in the death of Christ for you. And His resurrection—oh, the glorious resplendence of Christ’s power over Death—is the proof!

For Dust You Are

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is accompanied by the admonition to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

It has already begun—the seasonal bemoaning of Ash Wednesday. As always, some call it and its ceremony—the imposition of ashes—a liturgical innovation, as if the Church had just started employing the practice last week. Since similar liturgies for the “Day of Ashes” can be found on the scene as early as the eighth century, the Gregorian Sacramentary being one particular source, it’s hardly an innovation. What’s more, when one discovers Early Church Fathers casually prescribing ashes as a sign of repentance—as though such prescriptions were normal—it’s likely the ceremonies themselves can be found among the first Christians.

Still, when this escape hatch won’t open, the next angle is the apparent counterintuition of Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21, which, so strangely, is the appointed Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday. I say “strangely” because it’s a reading that appears to discourage Christian pieties observable to others. Ash Wednesday, if it’s done right, certainly isn’t discreet. It smears an ashen cross right in the middle of its participants’ foreheads. That must be what Jesus means in the text.

I guess what I can’t figure out is if the critics truly believe the rites and ceremonies of Ash Wednesday are bad practices. Maybe it’s as simple as particular churches having never done it before. Perhaps that’s true because they simply strayed away over time. Or perhaps they exchanged ancient liturgies and their aesthetics for things deemed more modern. I mean, the phrase “historic rites and ceremonies” just sounds so primitive—as though we Christians see ourselves as distinct from the surrounding world, as having our own culture and vernacular. Besides, ashes are not easily scrubbed clean from coffee cups and stadium seating cushions.

Or perhaps instead, somewhere deep down inside, there’s an exceptional fearfulness of the event’s deeper stare into the human soul—a gaze that’s far heavier, far more personal, than so many other pious practices they already employ the rest of the year. Kneeling is a Christian posture that demonstrates, among other things, the distinction between the Creator and the creature. We kneel in humility because God is great, and we are not. Kneeling, and then smearing ashes on one’s face, takes that posture into much deeper strata. It is far more than a juxtaposition. It makes visible what the one kneeling is owed. But before I go there, let’s stay with Matthew 6.

I should ask, do you volunteer at a soup kitchen? Well, apparently, Matthew 6:3 says you should only give in that way if you can sneak in and out without being seen. If not, do not do it. How about making the sign of the cross, folding your hands, and praying before eating your meal at a public restaurant? It sure seems that Matthew 6:6 prohibits such things, reserving such behaviors for one’s closet.

I suppose I could go on. In fact, I will. All of chapters five through seven in Matthew’s Gospel comprise Jesus’ infamous “Sermon on the Mount.” Remember, a reader (or listener) doesn’t arrive at Matthew 6’s content without first traveling through Matthew 5, which includes verses 13-16, a text encouraging the public demonstration of one’s Christian faith through word and deed, all to steer onlookers to the one true God who can save them.

But if I trust the wisdom of the Ash Wednesday nay-sayers concerning Matthew 6, it sure seems as though chapters five and six are in conflict. That is unless the Lord’s words in Matthew 6 mean something else entirely—words showing the distinction between genuine faith’s expression and works-righteousness leading to damning hypocrisy.

Honestly, I think if the Ash Wednesday critics dug a little deeper into the Lord’s words in Matthew 6, they’d marvel at how such a seemingly contradictory reading could be chosen for such a day, especially since, at first glance, it does appear to swim against Ash Wednesday’s thrust. Moreover, they might even see how such a reading, adorned by Ash Wednesday’s penitential shadows, leans into the very first reading Christians will hear four days later. Genesis 3:1-21 is the Old Testament reading appointed for the First Sunday in Lent. There, believers will hear the fateful words so stunningly embodied by Ash Wednesday’s instinctive momentum. Because of Sin’s terrible grip, we are reminded that each of us will “return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Forward from that moment in history, dust and ashes would be stark reminders of Death’s wage, first earned in the Garden in the beginning.

The thing is, if you somehow miss that essential part of Christianity’s teaching throughout the rest of the year, Ash Wednesday just won’t allow it. You can’t leave its classroom without its message painted on your face.

It’s a quick guess, but if I remember correctly, there were about 2,000 years between Adam and Abraham. Of course, if I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will correct me. But whatever the time frame, long after Eden’s events, Abraham approached God with a humble awareness of what he truly deserved: Death. How do I know? Because in Genesis 18, Abraham called himself “dust and ashes” (v. 27). In other words, God’s words to Adam were so piercing they could not be shaken loose by the believers who came after him. Dust and ashes had become a visible reminder of what awaited everyone. Abraham knew his mortal fate relative to the initial curse announced in Eden, and he knew it was not only inevitable but also world-encompassing. Others throughout the Bible’s pages knew and spoke similarly. Job is one (Job 30:19). Solomon is another (Ecclesiastes 3:20). In fact, Solomon quotes Genesis 3:19 almost word for word. In Matthew 11:21, Jesus commends by example the imposition of ashes as relative to repentance. How could He not? Again, His faithful prophets did. Joel called for it (Joel 2:12-18). Jeremiah did, too (Jeremiah 25:34). Jonah saw Nineveh’s king implore his entire kingdom to do it as a sign of sorrow (Jonah 3:6).

In every instance, the ashes marked humanity’s bondage to Sin coupled with sorrow and the admitted need for rescue from Death—the need for God’s mercy. That was at the heart of Abraham’s petition. He approached God, first admitting his ashen worthlessness. But he dared to make a request at all because he knew God to be merciful. That’s what he was pleading—to spare Sodom from absolute annihilation if a handful of righteous could still be found there. And because Abraham was right about God, the Lord promised to be merciful. Unfortunately, Sodom proved its inevitable fate in destruction.

I don’t want to ramble on too long. Suffice it to say that Ash Wednesday is not an event swallowed by doom and gloom. It’s also not something born from and marked by hypocritical self-righteousness. Instead, it’s carried along by hope, not in the self but in Jesus. It divides Law and Gospel in the most extreme ways. We’re marked in ash—marked for Death. But that mark is in the shape of a cross. We are not left without help, without rescue. We’re told God acted. Jesus is the promise’s fulfillment given to Adam in Genesis 3, just four verses before God described Sin’s unfortunate consequences. Adam didn’t meet the bad news without having first been awash in the good news, the Gospel. He met the consequences equipped with a divine promise. Ash Wednesday demonstrates this, and it does so viscerally. Its entire message is that Christ bore the deathly burden of dust and ashes. He went to war with Death and its terrible powers and won. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26), Paul said. And just as Ash Wednesday doesn’t stop at Death’s identification but instead carries its participants to the Gospel, so does Paul continue, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).

I suppose if pastors want to forgo Ash Wednesday, withholding the imposition of ashes from their people—and with it, the timeless benefits of such Law and Gospel piety demonstrated throughout biblical history—they’re free to do so. The practice is not mandated among the churches. Here at Our Savior in Hartland, we intend to stay the course, just as we’ve done for the past 68 years. In fact, there will be a brief “Imposition of Ashes” service for all the school children (and anyone else who wants to attend) on Wednesday morning at 8:10 a.m. After that, I’ll get into my car and take Word and Sacrament and the ashes to any of the shut-ins who’d desire them. Later that same night, at 7:00 p.m., the congregation will gather for the Ash Wednesday Divine Service.

The imposition of ashes will be more than accessible here at Our Savior.

That being said, as the Christians depart any or all of these services, the critics can feel free to think of us however they’d like. Although, we’ll be too busy wandering around our lives silently proclaiming that Christian piety still exists in this world. In other words, yes, there are still people in this world who believe they are filthy sinners in need of rescue—and that rescue was won by the Son of God on a cross. And as with any silent demonstration of genuine Christian devotion, maybe, just maybe, it will become something else.

“Hey, you have some dirt on your face.”

“Oh, I forgot about that. It’s not dirt. It’s ash. Let me tell you why it’s there.”


It’s been a busy week around here. Much has happened.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” That sounds nice. And perhaps it’s true. Still, it’s a gamble. Discovering oneself overcome by busyness, both reflection and recalibration are probably needed. Socrates knew as much, which is why he mused, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” In other words, just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re doing anything genuinely worthwhile or productive.

My wife, Jennifer, has been treating Madeline and Evelyn to episodes of “I Love Lucy.” I’ve missed out. Why? Because I’ve been too busy. It’s likely Lucille Ball would understand my reason. She allegedly said, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.” She was describing momentum. Right now, my studies require incredible momentum, the kind that must be established and maintained. I’m capable of multitasking, and yet, I’ve noticed that if I slow down, get distracted, or become busy with something other than the reading and writing at hand, I get frustrated and produce less in almost every task across the board. For the record, I wrote a little more than seventy single-space pages of material this past week. That number doesn’t include two sermons, an editorial, or even this eNews, for that matter.

In your way, it’s likely you know what I’m describing. When you’re on a roll, things come more easily. Yardwork, remodeling, paperwork, you name it. Pace is important. It’s getting into the rhythm that’s hardest. For example, it’s no secret I despise exercising. If slamming my head in a door and walking on a treadmill both produced the same health results, I’d choose the door-slamming. But since I’m pretty sure head trauma burns far fewer calories than walking, the treadmill it must be. Even so, making my way to the treadmill is like walking the Green Mile. And once I get to the dreadful torture device, the sixty seconds it takes to put on my walking shoes, climb aboard, and then press the start button is nothing short of an Olympic-sized chore.

But once I get going—once momentum is built and I meet a reasonable stride—an hour on the treadmill seems like nothing. In fact, I discover I’m energized enough for a quick go at pushups, sit-ups, and planks. In other words, I find the strength for other things, not to mention my body feels better, and because I didn’t choose the head-slamming method, my skull is unbruised and pain-free.

I suppose one reason I’m sharing these rambling thoughts this morning is that we’re at the edge of Lent. Being more or less literarily exhausted by this past week, I’ll keep this shorter than usual, offering two things to consider.

Firstly, thinking Christologically and devotionally, Lent is a penitential time—a time for reflection, fasting, and spiritual recalibration. Its solemn color—the deepest violet—is a clue to this. Solemnity can influence. It can steer. By Lent’s prodding, one can find a way back into a healthy regimen of corporate worship, Bible study, and devotional self-care. If you’ve fallen prey to worldly busyness that leaves little time or energy for the God who loves you, Lent can be good for you. Beginning with Ash Wednesday, the six weeks that follow will involve a spiritual “exercising” of sorts. The human heart and mind will be immersed in what Saint Paul calls “the word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) in ways relatively unmatched by the rest of the Church Year. And as the routine progresses from one week to the next, momentum builds until finally meeting its stride in Holy Week and the Triduum—the great “Three Days” of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter. It’s there a Christian realizes (if he or she hasn’t already) the great goodness to be had by a seemingly dreadful regimen—the cross’s dripping mess; a bludgeoned, bloody, and weakened Savior pinned to its gibbet; a terrible black sky palling the whole scene, leaving one to wonder if anything Christ said and did produced anything of value. Indeed, Easter’s stride says, “Absolutely! Everything He said was true! His resurrection is proof. By the power of the Holy Spirit through this Gospel, I have the strength to go on—to flex the muscle of Christ’s divine love until my last breath!”

Secondly, while the word “Lent” might carry some gloomier baggage for many, it’s actually a word of hope. Its root is an Old English word meaning “springtime.” Its Dutch and German crossovers mean “longer days.” In other words, inherent to Lent’s momentum is not necessarily a spiritual drudging through misery. Instead, its heart is set on counting down to the perpetually sunlit springtime of new life. Again, Easter—the festival day that proves the promise of heaven will be the longest, most wonderful summer day for all who believe in Jesus, the One who conquered the eternal night of Death on the cross!

And so, my point is twofold. Firstly, take advantage of Lent. Use its regimented traditions of fasting to your benefit. Let them help you build momentum toward a steady stride of faithfulness for the rest of the year. And secondly, do this knowing that even as building momentum may be challenging, remember your goal and then be blessed by its stride. The longer days, blossoming trees, bright-beaming sun filling pleasant days—all these things are hints to the world to come, and Lent and Easter display the scene magnificently.

Boots with a Rifle

I’m guessing some of you may be as exhausted by winter’s burden as I am. It’s right about this time every year that I begin calling out to the heavens, “I can’t take it anymore. Enough, already!” The ever-overcast sky ensures bitter coldness wrapped in seemingly perpetual darkness; these things make much of what we must endure as humans that much harder.

There are other moments in life when this phrase seems appropriate, moments when our thresholds have been met and exceeded, causing us to wash our hands clean of the situation. This happened to me recently in connection with the new edition of Luther’s Large Catechism printed by Concordia Publishing House, my Synod’s official publisher. The latest edition is subtitled “with Annotations and Contemporary Applications.” Much of the controversy concerns particular contributors and various applications relevant to current issues made throughout. Thankfully, our Synod’s president, Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, halted the book’s printing to investigate the concerns being raised by critical readers. I did not criticize the volume publicly, but I had my concerns. Did I actually read the book? Much of it, yes. I was provided a PDF copy. A few days later, President Harrison returned the book to the presses.

Staying out of the controversy (primarily because I’m far too busy with my studies right now), I posted a quick note on social media:

“I’ve read quite a bit of this volume in PDF form, notes and all. I’m glad this has been resolved. Bishop Matt Harrison handled it well. Admittedly, I still struggle to fathom Steven Paulson’s inclusion as a contributor. I can guess why he was brought into the project. Nevertheless, including him here encourages trusting him elsewhere. I fear that’s something we’re going to regret. My two cents…as useless as they might be.”

I deleted the post two days later. Here’s why.

I received two private messages asking why I was concerned with Steven Paulson as a contributor. Short on time, I wrote, copied, and pasted a reply to both:

“Not just Paulson. Some of the commentaries use language betraying woke infection. This edition clearly shows that some nasty things have infiltrated the LCMS. But you asked about Paulson. He has dangerous theology. You might think I’m repeating talking points from others, but I’m not. I’ve read Paulson. He firmly believes Christ had sins of His own. He denies the vicarious atonement. And these are just a few of the things that make him dangerous. I think it’s a bad idea to include folks like him because what they write serves as a breadcrumb trail back to their tragic theologies. I think people will read Paulson’s essay—which, admittedly, is well done—and then they’ll travel outside the volume to discover him elsewhere. When they do, the problem will become exacerbated because the words he used among us, which seem fine, do not mean the same things within the context of his own theological world. The volume “Justification and Rome” by Robert Preus comes to mind. Rome and Lutheranism used the same words, but with far different meanings, so we remain divided. Including Paulson, we have established a platform of trust in him as an expert with some pretty crucial things. In other words, we’re essentially saying, “If we consider him an authority, you should, too.” I think this is dangerous. Again, my two cents. Take the two pennies I offer or leave them.”

I only received one reply, and it was telling. He didn’t debate my concern but teetered at the edge of ad hominem, asking, “You have guys like Charlie Kirk and Dinesh D’Souza endorsing your books. How do you justify that and still criticize the new LC?”

Do I really need to explain the difference? First of all, CPH—the official, doctrinally-monitored publishing house for my Synod—did not publish my books. Secondly, they’re not all theological. Thirdly, an endorsement is not content contribution. I do not let Charlie Kirk or Dinesh D’Souza contribute essays to my books interpreting my meaning. They are readers, just like everyone else. In short, if Charlie or Dinesh like what I’ve written, they’ll say as much and endorse it. But in the end, the breadcrumbs in my writings are leading folks from their spheres to mine. That’s how endorsements work. Essays and annotations are far different. They interpret, explain, and apply. They’re catechetical. They reverse the trail’s direction. In this new authoritative volume, Paulson (and other commentators) are propped up in ways that lead our people into their theological spheres of influence—and relative to our confessional documents, no less. In my opinion, this is a dangerous move on an already slippery slope. I don’t see any reason to include them, especially when we have hundreds of capable writers in the LCMS who could have done the job and probably far better.

I have my suspicions as to why folks like Paulson were included. I’ve attempted to confirm these suspicions through direct dialogue. I have nothing to show for it.

So, I deleted that original comment, primarily because, while I understand why my Synod’s president did what he did, I remain bothered. The private messages demanding that I recant the Paulson concerns became an “Enough already!” moment that drove me to wash my hands of the volume’s benefit and walk away from it entirely. I suppose the only benefit to the private interactions was the opportunity to reflect and then put handles on my concerns, and by doing so, to realize that my social media post might enigmatically lead people to a publication I have no intention of buying or using.

That being said, you do what you want with it. It’s in print and available. If you do, think about a few things. Firstly, read it critically. Pay attention to the details—the speech’s seasonings. Secondly, when folks go on the offensive against the volume’s critics, weigh the reasons for and the arguments inherent to their attack. Are they one of the book’s contributors? Are the ones raising concerns being accosted for this or that ad hominem reason? Are they being accosted because what they’re saying is embarrassingly accurate? Remember, many of the critics are pastors. They’re in the trenches using these materials. They’re the ones who have to match the so-called “contemporary applications” with what’s actually happening in the world around them. With that, it certainly seems they have a right to share their concerns with their commanding officers.

Remember one more thing. There’s truth to the saying that soldiers win the war while the generals win the credit. If you can, watch “All Quiet on the Western Front.” I just finished watching the 2022 version on Netflix over several days. As you do, pay close attention to the character Paul. You’ll see him change from a wide-eyed, do-whatever-I’m-told participant (in what is later learned are little more than his commander’s personal pursuits) to a dreadfully burdened soldier who discovers the reality of war while losing everything left of his own will—his own ability to discern right from wrong—because he’s continually pressed to blindly accept and do terrible things that he shouldn’t. In particular, pay close attention to the dialogue around the 1 hour and 40 minutes mark. You’ll hear Paul finally confess to his friend Kat the trajectory of his confused hopelessness. But then you’ll hear Kat reply, “What do I know? I know nothing. I’m a pair of boots with a rifle.” Kat has already been entirely crushed by his commanding officers’ demands for discussion-less obedience, and he can do nothing to help Paul know why he fights or, perhaps worse, what’s truly at stake if they lose.

You are more than boots with a rifle. You are a discerning, thinking Christian. You are the soldiers that win or lose the war. Order is important. Rank is helpful. Respect in between is Godly. Still, I’ve written in other places that history continues to prove all too often that the cause of honor has always been an easily tradeable amenity to people in seats of authority. But for the rest of us in the trenches—the war zones, the places where the ideologies take shape, where they become flurrying bullets peppering our defenses and shattering the lives of real human beings—honor for the cause remains a requisite. A clear-sighted grasp of our identity and cause must dwell in the camps of the soldiery. Without it, loss is inevitable. And while the generals share after-battle drinks at the club, all agreeing that some efforts to take ground must be fought and others must be conceded, the reality is that if the soldiers ultimately lose the war, those generals will end up in shackles, too. The boots with the rifles hold the line. Pray. Discern. Hold the line.

Humanity Is Not Free. Christians Are.

Lent is nearly upon us. The next three Sundays—Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima—prepare us for its spiritual throttling.

In a way, worshipping communities that employ historic liturgies already have the upper hand on Lent’s penitential nature. They’ll easily recognize the following words’ shackling character used at the Divine Service’s beginning:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”

Or perhaps you know it another way:

“I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”

Present and eternal punishment. Temporal and eternal punishment. Same thing. The spheres of this world and the next are both included.

Indeed, these words are incarcerating, leaving no room for escape.

Essentially, we first approach God’s altar admitting to something. Even as believers, the nature of faith has a sense of what that something is. Faith reminds the believer to think twice before approaching God according to our human virtues. We should never think He hasn’t the right to send us away in shame. We should never be so comfortable with ourselves that we begin to think His wrath is something we don’t merit. And so, before anything else occurs in the service, believers go to their collective knees in confession. We fold our hands. We keep our heads low. We establish a posture before the One who has every right to eradicate every swirling atom of this fallen creation. We do this agreeing to His description of humankind, not our own, a description rendered so eloquently—so searingly—in His holy Word.

I’m doing more reading these days than ever before, almost to the point of it being unenjoyable. I read somewhere along the way that Frank Lloyd Wright designed his unique structures in ways that communicated his heart’s greatest love for nature. What stirred in his heart caused him to say, “The space within becomes the reality of the building.” I get what he means. He was an architectural artist. And his words sound nice. However, I’ve seen some of Wright’s buildings. In my opinion, they’re as impractical as they are impressive. But what do I know? That being said, if you really want to see a genuine architectural rendering of a human heart, stop by any of the thirty-one prisons in Michigan. There you will see a more authentic representation of humanity’s viscera in an architectural form. You will observe an exterior adorned by multiple rows of massive fences decked in razor wire surrounding windowless cinderblock. What will you discover within? Through the facility’s massive metal doors, you’ll find wall after wall securing one human cage after the next.

A prison is the human heart’s best interpretation because, of itself, humanity is not free.

As I said, I’ve been reading quite a bit lately from lots of sources. Cyril Connolly is a writer I discovered by way of Rudyard Kipling. Connelly said something about how everyone is serving a life sentence in the dungeon of self. For as depressing as that might sound, he wasn’t that far from what Saint Paul meant by a number of phrases employed throughout his Epistle to the Romans. He writes things like “the law of sin and death,” “enslaved to sin,” and “the wages of sin is death.” Paul is trying to tell us something.

For one, he wants us to know we can’t keep God’s Law rightly. As humanity is enslaved to Sin, so is humanity dragged along by the innate desire to break God’s Law. Paul says as much, writing, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). Naturally, when laws are broken, a judicial wage is earned: punishment. With this, we find ourselves closer to what Paul needs us to know by these phrases. Even apart from their proper context, we know something more about humanity. We not only begin to sense the handcuffs—the very real restraints that bind us to our treachery—but also the eternal punishment we’ve earned in destruction’s terrible cell.

And yet, God’s inclination has never been to punish, imprison, or destroy. He wants to show mercy (Luke 23:34, 6:36; 1 Peter 1:3; Lamentations 3:22-23). He wants to forgive. He wants to redeem—to buy back the criminals from their fate. He wants to set humanity free. Already knowing that the Gospel “is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), the rest of the text surrounding Saint Paul’s select phrases brings this Gospel and instills the freedom God desires:

“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).

The Good News is that Christ has won your freedom. He has paid the price. Faith in Christ binds the believer to Christ, thereby binding that same believer to the certainty that he cannot be condemned to Sin’s chains or held captive by Death’s cell.

The forthcoming Gesima Sundays are delivering us into this news in unique ways. Listen carefully. Lent will display its combat. Pay close attention. Good Friday will demonstrate the great exchange. Don’t miss it. All these things will culminate in a horrendously wonderful trial resulting in a hideously sweet verdict: Christ must take humanity’s place in judgment on the cross. The guilty ones are free to go.

And then Easter. Oh, Easter!—the joyful proof of the debt’s payment followed by the prison’s absolute demolition from the inside; a glorious work accomplished by the only Prisoner who could do it!