This past week, someone I was chatting with used the word “charming” in a sentence. The word stood apart from the rest of the conversation. I think this is true for two reasons.

The first is that, like so many other words that have faded from regular employment, “charming” has fallen on hard times. Linguistically, this happens naturally, and for various reasons. In the vernacular economy, words replace other words. One reason I’ve heard for this has to do with proportionate use. In other words, a term maintains its viability when a larger portion of its users fit its description. I don’t know if that’s relevant to “charming.” Although, having recently witnessed a young boy in a waiting room at a doctor’s office tell his mom to shut up and give back his cell phone, and then to see her do exactly as he demanded, I sometimes wonder. Charming means polite and friendly leading to likability. Polite, friendly, and likable did not fit this kid, and unfortunately, such behaviors are more so becoming the rule than the exception. With that, I wonder if the word really is of much use to us, except in cases of sarcasm. This leads me to the other reason.

Another reason the word stood apart is that in this case it was used positively. We both knew the person being described as a friendly and likable person. Indeed, he is charming in every sense of the word. But again, it seems more often than not, the word is scarred by cynical nuance. Charm is seen as a tool for getting what one wants. I read this morning that psychologists have decided on a name for this kind of charm. It’s called “Eddie Haskell Syndrome,” appropriately named after the character from the show Leave it to Beaver. Eddie was known for gushingly good behavior when adults were around. But when they weren’t, he was up to no good. He used charm to gain trust, but only so that he could get away with his deviant schemes.

We all know people like Eddie Haskell, folks who portray themselves one way and yet are completely different behind the scenes.

A few years ago, I told my son Harrison that being charming was a lost art, and it’s one I wanted him to embrace—and I wanted him to do it in a genuine way. By the way, it’s not like he wasn’t demonstrating the characteristics already. He was (and does). In context, he was experiencing a moment of exhaustion from trying to be polite while so many of his peers seemed self-centered and impolite. In that tired moment, I just wanted to encourage him to stay the course, telling him that while it wouldn’t get any easier, it certainly was the best way to live. The Bible definitely says as much. The advice Saint Paul gives in texts such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22-23, and Colossians 3:12 isn’t bad. It’s good. By this, I meant for Harrison to understand that charm—polite and considerate friendliness—goes a long way with people. A man who does these things makes others glad to be with him. This is true not just because he’s pleasant to be around, but because he emanates honorability. He shows he’s worth trusting, and what he says and does is worth emulating. It’s likely I told Harrison what Albert Camus said about charm. Camus said something about how charming people are the only ones who own a person’s “yes” before ever asking a specific question.

Considering our world, Camus’ words (and mine) are likely to be twisted toward the negative. Politeness, kindness, respectfulness, clean language—all the various characteristics that make for charm—these are goodie-two-shoes behaviors for many modern onlookers, things people expect others to do because they’re either culturally awkward or because they’re attempting to manipulate others. In one sense, the cynics are right on both accounts. Genuinely charming people are out of step with the secular culture, which in my estimation, is a good thing. We need more people willing to speak up and say things like, “Hey, that’s wrong. You shouldn’t use foul language like that.” Secularism is rarely on the side of such goodness. But charming people seem to emit goodness. Goodness can and does influence others. Charming people tend to make others want to be better, not worse. Again, this is a good thing. We could use a lot more of what charming people bring to the societal table.

Of course, charm can be used for bad, too. Even Proverbs 31:30 notes that charm can be wielded deceitfully. More than familiar with this, I should mention I’ll have a close eye on any “charming” young men cozying up to my daughters. I’m not stupid. And so, to all the Eddie Haskells, I say, “Beware. My Jeep Wrangler is far roomier than it looks. It can also get to undiscoverable backwoods places that other vehicles cannot.” My point: I’ll be watching for charm’s real fruits—Godly fruits. In particular, I’ll watch for the boys who encourage my daughters to walk with Christ. However, only the ones who genuinely want to join them in that walk will ever come close to getting my blessing. In other words, if you cannot care for and walk with my girls as they walk beside Christ, you may be a nice person, but you’re not the kind of “charming” Christopher Thoma and the rest of his family are tracking.

In the end, the topic of charm’s fading usage is an interesting one. Does it really matter all that much? I don’t know. Plenty of words have disappeared over time. Although, it’s true we’ve lost some pretty interesting words like snollygoster and brabble. Look them up. You’ll see we absolutely need to reinvigorate both. Relative to charm, however, the word itself might not matter, but its meaning certainly does. I suppose when its synonyms (words like amiable, delightful, engaging, and others) begin disappearing, too, we should be concerned because, as a society, we likely no longer belong to their meanings.

A Squirrel is Not a Dog

For the record, children are simply the best. I’m pretty sure I provided some evidence for this statement last week when I shared Giselle Graney’s Triduum artwork. Of course, I have ample reasons beyond her demonstration. One of the reasons can be seen in the Lord’s words from Matthew 18:4, which is when Jesus told His disciples that to be great in the Kingdom, one must bear the humble faith of children.

Having revisited the whole chapter this morning, I think what strikes me is that, unlike adults, children receive information differently. Adults tend to reshape information to fit what they already know. For example, if an adult believes baptism is nothing more than a symbolic washing, when that same adult crosses paths with biblical texts describing it as so much more, he or she will find a way to cram those texts into what’s already believed. That’s called eisegesis. When it comes to studying God’s Word, eisegesis is not humble. It’s self-serving. It imposes preconceived meanings upon a text. The opposite of this is called exegesis. Exegesis means to take meaning from the text.

Personally, I think one of Sin’s definable fingerprints is mankind’s tendency toward eisegesis. Indeed, Scripture poorly read or heard resulting in bad interpretation is Sin’s perpetual revenge.

When it comes to information intake, children don’t necessarily do this. At least not until adults show them how. I think Jean Piaget, the infamous child psychologist, more or less proved it. He’s the one who showed children as the truest exegetes. We see it in their attentiveness leading to adaptability—how they’re always on duty with information—how they can take two pieces of information, and when the pieces don’t fit, they adapt. They let the facts change them rather than laboring to change the facts.

I’m sure plenty of parents have seen this happen in real-time. For example, a child sees a dog for the first time. He learns to call it “dog.” He sees a snake. It’s far different from a dog, so he asks what it is. He learns to call it “snake.” But then he sees a squirrel. It looks absolutely nothing like a snake, so he knows it isn’t one. That’s easy. And it’s little more than honest observation. Still, his categories are limited. He has to put the squirrel somewhere into his knowledge base. Therefore, he notices its fur. He sees it has a tail. He watches it run across the yard on four legs. Only knowing dogs and snakes, he points proudly and says, “Momma! Dog!” When the mom clarifies it’s a squirrel, the child creates a new category based on fact. He doesn’t argue with his mom for the squirrel’s dogness. He doesn’t try to convince her that the squirrel is really a dog trapped in a squirrel’s body. It’s simply not a dog. It’s a squirrel. The facts change the child. He adapts. Piaget showed that adaptation is innate to child development, being more so relative to natural law. Every normal human child does it instinctually.

Piaget demonstrated that there are only two reasons a child would deliberately think a squirrel is a dog. The first is if he was completely ignorant of squirrels, and because he is attempting to grow and learn in truth, he adds the animal to the only available categories he knows. The second is if an adult lied to him, interrupting the child’s ordinary course of development and confusing the categories.

Theologically speaking, it’s there you see an essential distinction between the faith Jesus describes and the kind of faith the world promotes. One receives truth. The other bends it. To bend truth is to change facts. To change facts is to lie. As Christians, we know lies are the devil’s offspring (John 8:44). Unfortunately, all of us are often more than willing to be a part of his family.

Apply what I’ve written however you’d like. There certainly are plenty of things happening in the world around us right now that make all of this worth considering. But as you ponder, be aware of your interpretative process. Are you being shaped by truth or opinions? Is God’s Word imposing on you, or are you imposing on God’s Word? For example, if God’s Word plainly says that each of us is biologically male or biologically female—and God Himself is the author of this grand design—could it be true that any of us were born with or in the wrong body? Going a bit further, is God’s Word to be counted truthful when it labels homosexuality a Sin, or is the Bible’s perspective on the topic suddenly pliable because the issue hits close to home? For that matter, is adultery a Sin? Is gossip a Sin? Is theft a Sin? Or are these activities somehow made justifiable when my spouse is inattentive, or I have a juicy scoop on someone else I feel needs airing, or I don’t have enough money?

God calls these behaviors “Sin” because that’s what they are. God’s Word does not lie. It gives you the truth. A squirrel is a squirrel. A dog is a dog.

Of course, the Sin-nature shows itself to be powerfully eisegetical in each of life’s tempting circumstances. It despises truth, and so, it imposes itself during information intake. In my experience, I’d say it doesn’t even want to know the truth. Truth is dangerous to its narrative. And if the truth does arrive on the scene, the Sin-nature will try to manipulate it, doing what it can to fit truth’s facts into its deliberately unadaptable categories. That’s unfortunate because, in the end, and as has been said, a squirrel will never be a dog. A male will never be a female. Adultery will never be Godly. And what’s more, at the divine conclusion of all things, the One who established the truth’s borders won’t be found adjusting any of them for individuals (Romans 2:11). Truth will be truth. Sometimes it will be hard. Other times it will be easy. But either way, it’ll always be what’s best.

I ask the Lord daily for a faith that knows and accepts this. Thankfully, He accomplished everything necessary to answer my prayer before I even asked the question. It was a strange truth He gave. Through mortal eyes, it appeared to be a criminal’s death. But God’s Word defined it differently. The Word imposed itself upon me, establishing an entirely new category. The man hanging on that cross was no ordinary man. He was God’s Son. He was not being punished for His own crimes but mine. And by this brutal event drenched in everything dreadful, I have been given that which is most wonderful: eternal life. By the power of the Holy Spirit given through this imposing Word of God, He continues to make me His trusting child—a Christian adult desiring to be in complete alignment with everything His loving Savior says is true.

Know the Labor Among Us is Not in Vain

I have a treat for you this morning. Truly.

For one, it’s proof that my congregation’s littlest children are listening—really listening—to what’s being preached and taught. This should be an assurance for anyone among us who’d question our Christian school or the rites and ceremonies of our liturgies. Our children, more than supported by faithful parents, are taking God’s Word into themselves in the richest ways—ways that equip them not only for steadfastness but for communicating the Gospel with substance. In other words, we’re raising our children to be far more than “Jesus loves you” Christians. They’re ones who can speak of God’s love and then go further into the person and work of Christ, the substance of that love.

Proof of this can be seen in a series of pictures I received after worship last Sunday. The images, five in all, depict the events of Holy Week and the Triduum—from Palm Sunday to Easter. Giselle Graney made them for me. And oh, how wonderful they are!

For the record, Giselle is eight years old. But don’t let that distract you. It’s clear she knew what she was doing. By the way, I went down to the school to ask her about a few of the images’ details just to be sure. I learned she was at home feeling a little under the weather, so I called her mom, Kerry. I asked her to check with Giselle. Sure enough, Giselle was intentional, even with the seemingly inconsequential details. And by the way, what she put into the portraits proves a theological prowess that extends far beyond many adults—the kind of artistic demonstration of Christological depth that one usually only sees among the greats like Caravaggio and Rembrandt.

Give me a minute or two, and I’ll walk you through a few of Giselle’s images. I know you’ll be as blessed. But before I share, there’s one more thing to keep in mind: the rule of interpretation.

A line in The Picture of Dorian Gray comes to mind. This is likely because I recently spent some time in the book looking for another line that fit a paper I was writing. In the volume’s preface, Oscar Wilde writes, “All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.” In other words, when looking at art, you see the details that are actually there. That’s the surface. But there’s always more to it. There’s meaning. Art attempts to make meaning visible. That involves interpretation. That requires the viewer to dig deeper into what he sees. It also involves prerequisite knowledge. Together, there in the substratum, knowledge and meaning challenge the viewer, just as the artist would have it. Giselle has done this masterfully. What’s more, she’s been paying attention to everything she’s heard so far throughout Lent. These images prove her heart is already cemented for the events circling Golgotha’s terrifying hill. And yet, she’s making her way there (and now, she’s taking all of us along) with a firm grasp on everything Golgotha itself makes sure. Even at eight years old, Giselle is demonstrating the heart-shaping power of the Gospel.

She gave me five pictures. I’m only going to talk about four. And I’ll share each before I describe it.

The first one depicts Palm Sunday. What do I like about it? First of all, this is the only picture she drew with Jesus in it—which I’ll get to in a minute. Until then, know she gets Jesus right. It seems most Palm Sunday images are inclined to portray Jesus as jubilant and smiling. And yet, Luke’s Gospel tells us He was crying, saddened that people had no idea what was actually happening, that He was riding forth to die, and that their rejection of Him as the Savior could and would only end dreadfully (Luke 19:28-44). Giselle’s Palm Sunday roadway is festively bright with colorful cloaks and palm branches. But her Jesus is tearfully sad. (See the cropped image above.) Giselle has been paying attention to the intricate details being preached to her. She didn’t just roll along in the usual pace of a springtime smiling Jesus—which I imagine is preferable to many. She showed us the Lord’s concerned heart, even when the world around Him expected an entirely different kind of king. This matters more to the Palm Sunday story than most folks might know.

Another of her portraits that caught my eye was the one detailing Gethsemane. Strangely, as I mentioned before, Jesus is not in it. Then I realized why. Jesus has already been arrested and taken away by the guards. At the picture’s top, there’s a star-filled sky. But beneath this sky, the theme is clearly darkness, as it should be. This is the beginning of hell’s onslaught against Him. Jesus said as much when the troupe approached to take Him away. Giselle heard her Lord say this last Wednesday during midweek worship. “This is your hour,” He said, “and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53).

Still looking for Jesus somewhere else in the Gethsemane picture, the viewer only sees where He’s been. On one side, a blood-pocked portion of grass is found beside a tree. That’s where He knelt and prayed, His sweat becoming blood (Luke 22:44). On the other side, a rooster (Matthew 26:34), a sword and a bloody ear (John 18:10), and thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16). Beneath those images, the words: “Jesus shines butier than any star.”

Did you catch that?

Intentionally or unintentionally, Giselle did two things there. First, she combined beautiful and brighter into a single word. When writers do things like that, it’s for emphasis—to draw attention to something. Intentionally or unintentionally, Giselle highlighted a profound point: what Jesus has endured—the betrayal, the suffering, the road to a grisly death—these make for the brightest, most beautiful demonstration of God’s glory (John 12:23-29; Mark 10:35-40). Indeed, Jesus displays a glory that is butier by far than any spinning celestial in the endless sky.

Another image depicts Good Friday. Again, no Jesus. But a moment of reflection determines His location. It is finished (John 19:30). The cross at the center is empty. Jesus is in the sealed tomb to one side. The rest of the portrait reveals a blackened sky (Matthew 27:45), the Father’s hand extended as He gives Jesus over as payment for Sin (Romans 8:32), a torn temple curtain (Matthew 27:51), dice used for casting lots (Matthew 27:35), the centurion’s helmet reverently removed in the presence of God’s Son (Matthew 27:54), a wilting flower (Isaiah 40:8, Romans 8:22) beside other rich images relative to the Lord’s powerful sacrifice. Displayed most prominently are the words, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34). These are the first of the seven last words Jesus spoke from the cross. I just preached on these particular words two weeks ago. Giselle was there. She heard the reason they’re first. Amid the gory details, the forgiveness of sins rests at the heart of the terrifying but butier event. That’s why Jesus is doing what He’s doing. He’s winning our forgiveness. It’s His goal. The “them” isn’t just the people attacking Him. It’s us, too. And He never loses sight of us throughout the ordeal. This sentence leads His final string of sentences, serving as the heart for each.

Giselle gets this.

The last image I’ll talk about is incredibly rich. It’s Giselle’s portrait of Easter. Again, no Jesus. But by now, I think I get Giselle’s broader theme, intentional or unintentional. First of all, while we can’t see Him, the risen and ascended Christ has promised, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20. But more important to the Easter narrative’s cadence, Jesus is always a step ahead of His beloved. In other words, the Lord is always out in front, accomplishing what none of us could or would if left to ourselves. We can only follow and discover His wonderful work. Here, in particular, the tomb is open. The sun is shining. The flowers are blooming beneath a beautiful blue sky. Scribed across the skyline are the words announcing what He’s already done, “He I Risen Allauilla!”

Now, before you criticize Giselle’s spelling, give the eight-year-old artist her due. She’s already proven her masterful ways. Did she really misspell some words, or did she find a way to avoid using one in particular since we’re still in Lent? As many who celebrate Lent already know, tradition sets the word aside until Easter. We don’t sing, say, or write it. (Notice, I didn’t use it in this paragraph.) Also, notice it’s not “He is risen,” but “He I risen.”

Okay. She probably misspelled both words. Nevertheless, here’s a chance to apply interpretation born from what’s already been a faithful demonstration of the Gospel. The words she gave us, even if by accident, are asking to be mined more deeply.

Start with “He I risen.” That’s easy. Jesus and Giselle. That’s John 14:19. Because He lives, she will live also. As far as the other, when I saw “Allauilla,” I saw Latin. My Latin is more than rusty, but I think a case could be made for “Alla uilla!” to be translated as “Come on, to the village!” Thinking this way, remember, everything Giselle has presented so far was born from childlike faith listening to and receiving God’s Word. Staying the course, “Come on, to the village!” seems awfully familiar to Easter. If not, then you’ve forgotten Matthew 28:5-8. It’s there we read:

The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.”

Do you know what I’d say in a moment like that? “Alla uilla! Come on! Let’s go to wherever Jesus is going and find Him!” And sure enough, Jesus is found on the way to the village of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) and then again later that same day in the upper room in Jerusalem (Luke 24:36-49).

Giselle has given me so much through these images. I’ll cherish them until I meet face-to-face with the One who inspired them. That being said, I hope you realize how significant the investment for faith made in this little girl has been, not only by her faithful parents but by a congregation intent on preserving the pure preaching and teaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the Sacraments. A church holding to this is invaluable. A Christian school serving as an extension of such a congregation is priceless. I’m absolutely sure that’s Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan. Behold Giselle’s demonstration and know the labor among us is not in vain.


I’ve been thinking that churches without lectionaries (which, in part, help lead through seasons) are really missing out, especially during Lent. Lent is an incredible time for spiritual maturation. Indeed, it’s supposed to be. It’s deliberately solemn. It’s intentionally reflective. The Christian Church aims herself during Lent in ways that she doesn’t at other times of the year.

Although, no matter the season, she doesn’t play by the world’s rules while doing this. She can’t. And why? Because the Church is bound to the Lord’s course for maturity. Here’s what I mean.

For Lent in particular, one of its chief aims is to pull down our defenses. It labors to explode the barricades we put around ourselves. Sometimes these barriers are erected to hide our real selves from others. In other words, we don’t want people to know how rotten we truly are. Perhaps they’re guarding an unholy self-righteousness that cannot see its own faults. In that sense, maybe they’ve been built to protect secret behaviors we just can’t bring ourselves to categorize as sinful because deep down inside, we know if we call them what they are, that means we’ll have to change.

Sometimes we just don’t know why the barricades are there. Maybe something dreadful happened to us, and now we’re guarded. Perhaps they’ve been learned from people who were nothing short of bad examples.

No matter what builds or supports our defenses, Lent is a flamethrower aimed at a paper house. It’s a wrecking ball, and with each of its concussive blows, more of humanity’s need for a Savior is revealed until, finally, we’re standing at Good Friday’s cross surrounded by rubble.

This is good. It’s all part of Christian maturity’s process—a course of spiritual development that involves admitting who we are at our epicenters—our dreadful nature and the need to see it wholly overthrown. It is a humble embracing of God’s truths—terrible or comforting—rather than boldly holding to one’s deceptive self.

In short, it takes spiritual maturity to admit to Sin and, thereby, to be found confessing it. In some ways, worldly maturity means reaching self-sufficiency. It means reaching the end of one’s life and, alongside Sinatra, saying, “I did it my way.” I heard that song played at a funeral. It made me sad. Christian maturity means steering clear of doing things our way. It means being utterly dependent upon Christ, upon doing things His way. Lent brings this into incredible focus. It reminds us that Sin is our way. And then it shows us the One hanging on Good Friday’s cross. It shows Him hanging there, not for Himself, but for us. This is His way, and it saves us.

In a way, Christ indicates this humble maturity in Matthew 18:1-6. It’s there He claims that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are the ones who humble themselves like children. In other words, when a Christian grows up—as he matures spiritually—he will be less like a self-sufficient, independent adult and more like a child whose trust must be placed externally. Childlike faith won’t resist truth’s hand. It won’t see it as invasive. Like a terrified child, fearful of this world’s monsters, it knows its own inadequacies and calls to the One who can provide what’s needed. Relative to humanity, this means rescue from the sinful predicament that keeps mankind in bondage to Death.

Lent helps cultivate this awareness. It helps take strides toward this kind of maturity.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow once said, “A man should be able to hear, and to bear, the worst that could be said of him.” Ten minutes on social media and Bellow would have labeled us as an immature society. In a way, Lent agrees with him. Spiritual maturity braves accusation, not just from others, but from God Himself. It knows it can be wrong. And yet, Lent’s undertow—a gripping current leading to the cross—reminds the Christian just what it is that enables a believer to admit to the hard news and be preserved through it.

The Gospel—the good news that we have not been left to our dreadfulness. Jesus, the Son of God, has been given over for our rescue.

Indeed, God wants us to know the depths of our very real need. In fact, it’s His love that carries the dreadful communication to us. In other words, He shows us our Sins because He cares. But then, He nails its solution to a cross. Right there, pinned to its splintery beams, we behold God’s love in the flesh. This love changes us. It enables us to confess our deepest dependence and cling to the only One who can provide what’s needed.

Regardless of the season, this is the heart and soul of the Church’s message. But if you miss it the rest of the year, it’s all but on steroids during Lent.

My prayer is that Lent is leading you in this way. If you’ve taken a chance to immerse yourself in it, I’m sure, like me, you’ve learned it certainly is capable.

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!

You Can Be Lifted

An interesting conversation between two women occurred beside me at my super-secret restaurant hideout this past week. I was alone with a gift card, my phone, a chicken salad sandwich, and a desire to get a moment of solitude with some required reading materials.

You should know I don’t try to overhear anyone’s conversation. On the contrary, to avoid distractions of every kind, I prefer to sit as far from everyone else in the room as possible. And yet, you know the sort of dialogue to which I’m referring. No matter where you sit, one person is speaking with uncomfortable volume and animation—almost as if she craves the admiration of everyone within a ten-table radius. And the other person at her table isn’t saying a word, only bobbing her head in agreement with everything shared.

As it would go, the story she told was dreadful. She spoke of their mutual friend’s shortcomings in the worst ways, pinning this and that personal injury upon her, making her seem like a ruthlessly unfeeling villain. After a few minutes of unrestrained mockery, it became clear that the two conversing women were related, and the target of their ill-witted ire was also a family member. However, I couldn’t quite figure out the person’s exact location on the family tree. Nevertheless, so goes William Thackeray’s observation that if “a man’s character is to be abused, say what you will, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business.”

Amazingly disheartening. And vicious. I couldn’t imagine living in such a family.

If you recall, I began by calling the conversation interesting. I meant that. Nearly all the grievances described by the blustering woman (and heard by everyone else in the restaurant) occurred while serving together at their church. Fascinatingly, this woman was utterly ignorant of the Christian witness she was portraying. And the fact that a man wearing a clerical collar was sitting a few tables away betrayed her confidence in her behavior. She knew I was there. Usually when someone is misbehaving, so to speak, and a clergyman happens by, they tend to alter their behavior, if only to keep from embarrassment. They go from cussing about their neighbor to suddenly explaining how often they read their Bible. That happens in my presence quite often. Not this time. In fact, I think she was counting on my approval.

Firstly, I’ve learned over the years that people who speak about others this way are usually far more capable of the actual atrocities in any failing relationship. I’ve also learned that in the economy of offenses given and received, they always ensure the scales are tipped in their favor. In other words, their sins are never as horrific as those committed against them. They’re bad, but not that bad. In fact, they’re pretty good—much higher up the ladder of decency and deservedness than so many other wretches.

There’s a portion in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress that goes:

“He that is down needs fear no fall, he that is low no pride. He that is humble ever shall have God to be his guide.”

Saint Paul’s words concerning the truest depths of our guilt are Bunyan’s inspiration. He wrote, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). Of course, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul’s instruction is undoubtedly born from his Savior’s words, such as the Lord’s concluding remark to a parable about a wedding feast: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11). Four short chapters later, Jesus would repeat this teaching word for word, once again demonstrating in unequivocally crisp detail what He meant by His preceding parable.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14).

I think what’s most interesting about this particular parable is the tax collector’s words. In English translations, he’s portrayed as humble, but it seems little more than humility that knows its sinfulness in a basic way. The English renders quite plainly, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” In the original Greek, it’s so much more than that. He doesn’t just call himself “a sinner” but refers to himself with the demonstrative definite article “τῷ,” which means he is calling himself what Paul called himself in 1 Timothy 1:15—the chief, the epitome, the sinner of all sinners. In other words, Jesus is portraying the tax collector as someone unconcerned with the sinfulness of everyone else in the room by comparison, preferring to take his place before God not as one of many but as the only one—and the worst one. No one is lower. No one is more horrible. No one is more deserving of God’s rightful wrath.

He is not a sinner. He is the sinner.

Jesus ends the parable so abruptly that it must have shocked His listeners. He didn’t describe a propitiating sacrifice, which would have been expected. He didn’t mention negotiations between the tax collector and God—that he would work harder to be a better person. Jesus simply describes the man as calling himself the worst sinner and then caps the parable by saying, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14). A contrite confession born from faith was enough at this moment. Knowing his truest identity as a contemptible sinner, he asked God to give him something other than what he deserved, something he knew was relevant to God’s innermost character: mercy. And that’s what God gave him. The tax collector left God’s presence forgiven.

Bunyan’s words ring true. You cannot fall if you’re already as low as you can be. But you can be lifted. And for all who know their sins, as Jesus describes, God promises to be the One to do the lifting. Look to the cross. You’ll see the One who submitted Himself to depths far lower than any of us could imagine. That’s the mystery inherent to Paul’s words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

I’ll never get my mind around what it means that Christ actually became Sin in my place. But I don’t have to understand it for it to be true. I believe it. That belief, established by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, moves me to remember my place before Him. I was as low as is humanly and spiritually possible. He lifted me up. I was Sin through and through. He took my place in its dust. But then He went even lower, taking into Himself anything that Sin, Death, and hell could ever inflict. As He did this, He won my innocence before the Father. Humble repentance and faith receive this victory in its absolute fullness.

It’s much harder to pummel others for their crimes when we know this about ourselves.

I want you to know I did two things before I left the restaurant. First, I paid for the women’s meal. It wasn’t that much more than what I had left on the gift card. Second, I left a note for them. I wrote one thing on it: Luke 18:9-14. I don’t know if they read the text. I’m hoping my first gesture stirred them to at least consider it. If they do eventually read it, I don’t know if they’ll get the point. What I do know is that God’s Word is powerful. It has everything necessary for converting and convincing proud hearts. I also know that our reflection of the Gospel’s light before the world around us has muscle, too (Matthew 5:13-16). I hope they read the text, take a chance on what Christian humility truly is—what it means relative to Sin—and then beam that humble trust in Christ to others.