Jesus is the Best Portion

Martha and MaryLuke provides a historical narrative of the time Jesus was the guest in the home of two sisters.  The lives of these two sisters are juxtaposed against one another in such a way as so as to lead the hearers to seek first the kingdom of God… by seeking rest in Jesus above all the immediate… and temporal… demands of each and every single day.

This is a short five verse historical narrative, meaning this story actually happened in history.  And it is a story that only Luke records for us among the four Gospel biographies.

This passage is also an objection passage, meaning it features a depiction of someone rejecting Jesus’ teachings – or his actions.

It’s Luke chapter 10, verses 38-42, which reads as follows:

“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Now, look at what appears immediately before this account.  You’ll notice that Luke Good Samaritan.jpgplaces this historical narrative of Jesus’ visit at Mary and Martha’s house right after the famous “Good Samaritan Parable,” another passage given to us only by Luke.  You’ll likely recall that in the “Good Samaritan Parable,” Jesus teaches that we should do good works in service to our neighbors – and that our neighbor is in fact anyone who is in need – and that we are called to serve even when our service could be detrimental to our own physical well-being.  So the objection that Martha raises shouldn’t seem too startling if we had simply been reading straight through Luke’s Gospel, landing on this narrative immediately after reading the “Good Samaritan Parable.”  It appears as if Jesus is condoning the actions of Mary who is not serving and caring for her guests – not helping her sister.  It appears as if Martha’s objection to Jesus is valid… why isn’t Mary helping her sister serve their special guests?  But Jesus doesn’t rebuke and chastise Mary as Martha was expecting him to do… and why is that?

Trouble in the Text:

Let’s look at the text again and consider this in more detail – to see what the real trouble is in this text.

Jesus says, “One thing is necessary,” and indicates that Mary has chosen it – the “good portion.”  But doesn’t it seem that what Martha was doing was good and in fact it would appear to be necessary.  Jesus and his disciples just entered her village and they needed a place to rest…. and she invited them into her house.  They were likely hungry and needed something to eat.  I’m sure their sleeping arrangements would have had to be made somewhere in the village if not at Mary and Martha’s house.

It seems that Martha has a point!  Someone needs to cook.  Someone needs to get a seat for everyone.  Someone needs to clean everyone’s feet.  Someone needs to get everyone some water from their travels.  Someone needs to find a place for the guests to put their luggage – or to rest and feed their animals.  So if Martha didn’t do these things, when would they have been done?  Would they have been done at all, since Mary clearly had no movement towards helping her?

Should Martha have tested Jesus and put him in a position of snapping his miracle making fingers when it was time for such acts of service to necessarily be completed… so everyone… including Martha… could just chill and not do any of the hosting work – that is apparently not necessary?  [Long pause]

I don’t think Jesus ever snapped his fingers for a miracle to happen, but I think you get my point.  He’s the God-Man and he doesn’t need to be served by Martha at all.  She needs to be served by him.

What I’m pointing out here in this text is that what Martha did – serving Jesus and her other guests – wasn’t a bad thing to do.  As the host, she was fulfilling her calling – her vocation.  [Pause]

Martin Luther had a deep, worked out theology on vocations.  Here is a quote that is often attributed to him concerning our work:

What you do in your house is worth as much as if you did it up in heaven for our Lord God…”

According to Luther’s way of thinking, you might think that Martha was really outdoing everyone with her work.  She wasn’t simply doing work in her house that would be worth as much as if she were doing it up in heaven for our Lord, she really was doing work in her house – for the Lord – who was literally in her house! 

Luther’s quote continues though:

We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.”

Here lies Martha’s trouble in choosing to do this good thing for Jesus.  Such service needs to flow from the Word of God and faith in the Word of God.   From this faith the work is to flow.  The text says that she was distracted from the serving.  What was she distracted from?  Jesus!  She was distracted from resting with Jesus by her serving.  And Jesus, being Jesus, knows her heart.  When she chastises him to spur him on to get her sister to work too – he knows that she is asking this because she is anxious and worried.  Here we see that even making a meal – even making a meal for Jesus – can be a life or death matter, if the work doesn’t flow from faith and if it keeps us from rest in Jesus.

Grace in the Text:

“So what does Jesus do when faced with someone who is doing the right things for the wrong reasons?”

He gives her grace.

God’s grace is in the rebuke Jesus gave to Martha.  It’s not often that we might consider a rebuke as containing God’s grace, but here you have to hear the heart position Jesus has towards Martha when he says these words.

Listen to this rebuke again and picture an empathetic Jesus:

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

Did you hear the gentleness in Jesus’ voice?  Did you hear the concern he had for Martha’s well-being?

Jesus directly addresses Martha by name – twice!  This is a sign of his gentleness to her.

Mary and Martha 2.jpgThis should not be understood of as a harsh critique.  He does have compassion on her… she after all is working hard in service for him and others.  He is her guest.  She has opened her home to him.  And you can tell that Jesus sees her suffering.  He puts the words anxious and troubled to her work.   Even though her work is a good choice – it’s a good thing for her to be serving her guests, these important visitors to her village… but as a result of her heart position behind her work – one of anxiety, trouble, and even resentment against Mary for not helping and its seems against Jesus too for not correcting Mary –  Martha is missing out on what Jesus has to offer her.  This is far from a “get behind me Satan,” response that the Apostle Peter got when he had the gall to rebuke Jesus.  No… this is an invitation from Jesus to Martha to partake in the good portion with her sister Mary.

And what is this good portion?  In our text, when Jesus says, “One thing is necessary,” it might be better for us to understand it as Jesus saying, “There is need of one thing.”  That one thing we need is Jesus.  Jesus is the best portion of anything a person might have in this world.

Martha is making a meal, of which I’m sure she will have a portion, but Jesus is letting her know that Mary has chosen the better portion… him!  And with his compassion and his heart position to Mary, he expresses his understanding of her trouble, Jesus is welcoming her into the rest that Mary has received sitting at his feet that Martha has missed.

It is the type of rest that comes when we realize that Jesus’ heart is for us… his heart that so loved us that he set himself to Jerusalem to die on the cross for our sins, for our troubled and idolatrous hearts, that we might have forgiveness and that he might be with you.

This image of the Lord being the good portion is not a concept that is new in Jesus’ words to Martha.  To get a better grasp of Scripture’s explanation of the Lord being our portion, I’m going to read Psalm 16 to you.  It’s on page 546 of your pew Bible.

Keep me safe, my God,

    for in you I take refuge.

I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;

    apart from you I have no good thing.”

I say of the holy people who are in the land,

    “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”

Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.

    I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods

    or take up their names on my lips.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;

    you make my lot secure. 

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

    surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;

    even at night my heart instructs me.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord.

    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. 

Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;

    my body also will rest secure,

because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,

    nor will you let your faithful one see decay. 

You make known to me the path of life;

    you will fill me with joy in your presence,

    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

In this Psalm, David calls the Lord his ONLY portion and his cup.  In the full context of this psalm, we see that this brings David security, gladness, and rest.

David says that apart from God he has no good thing, which indicates that every good thing he does have comes from the Lord!

This psalm features the juxtaposition between the person who seeks after other gods for refuge and himself as he seeks after the one true God.  Those who seek after other gods will suffer more and more, and the counsel from these false gods will lead those who listen to them and walk with them to ruin and decay.  Whereas, the counsel that comes from the Lord leads to life, a life that is even beyond the grave!

This rescue even from the grave is one that Martha will later experience firsthand through her brother Lazarus.  The Mary and Martha in Luke’s Gospel are the same sisters found in John chapter 11.  In John’s Gospel, their brother Lazarus has died, but they had sent for Jesus to heal him before his death.  Jesus waited to go to them and he arrived after Lazarus had been in the grave for four days.  And in that text, we hear Martha’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God who has come into the world.  She says that with his words he can do anything.  And Jesus raises Martha’s brother back to life. He raises him even though he’s been dead for four days with his body reeking from decay.

Martha knew there was a resurrection of all the dead to come at the end of days, but she had no anticipation of experiencing a foretaste of this victory from the dead in her lifetime – through her brother’s death and resuscitation.

And Lazarus’ resuscitation was the foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead that was to come.  David was right!  God will not abandon his people to the realm of the dead.  He will not leave his people to decay.  He will not let his people face eternal death due to their sins – in Christ all sins are forgiven when Christ and his work are received in faith.

From John’s account of Martha’s interaction with Jesus, we see that she took his invitation to heart.  She is trusting in him to have the power over life and death – first to save Lazarus from death and later to raise Lazarus from death to life.  She has learned what Jesus meant when he said that there is one thing of need – it is him!  Jesus is the best portion of anything a person might have in this world.  A person might have a meal to support physical life, but no matter how many meals a person eats, another is always needed.  All such sustenance of this world will abandon us to the grave and to decay leaving us with the penalty of our sins, but Martha’s sin was forgiven at the cross and so is your sin.

Jesus is the “good portion” that will never be taken from us and he will not abandon us to the grave.

Trouble in the World:

In our day and age, the same temptation and struggle that weighed down on Martha presses against us too.  We have more things to do than what can be done in the hours of the day.  And all these important and even necessary things to get done vie against our time with Jesus and our rest in him.

This means that we need to have proper prioritization of our God-given vocations, which are really callings from God.  They are not just jobs that bring in a paycheck.  They are all the relational as well as job duties that God has called each and every one of us into. In all of these callings, the calling that Jesus gives us to abide in him and rest in him must be our first calling.  His presence is with us when we hear his Word… and when we are in fellowship with other believers centered on that Word… and when we walk in the waters of baptism in which we are buried and raised with Christ daily, as we turn from our sins and turn to Christ… and when we partake in the communal reception of his body and blood at the Lord’s Supper, in which we not only hear – but also taste the forgiveness of sins.  This invitation, this call to receive Jesus as the best portion above all things in this world… is above all other callings.

But this world presses in on us and distracts us from Jesus and his presence in our lives.  It might be easy to picture tragedies such as cancer, death, fires, natural disasters, divorce, loss of jobs, and such as the thorns that choke out the light of Christ, but these daily troubles and woes can be of the variety that Martha had and we all have when we are pressured to put other relational vocations above our calling to be in Christ so that we have no time in Christ’s presence at all.

We have many more distractions in the 21st century than the disciples from centuries before.  The many luxuries we have from technological advancement has only increased the number of hours that we work, because we are no longer limited to a small geographic work area or the hours of daylight of the sun.  Much of our work (well for many of us) is not as physically demanding as that of previous centuries, so our hours of work can increase too, which certainly takes a toll on our minds, emotions, and spirits, if not our bodies.  Our standard of living in America is very high… I imagine that most of us eat better than the kings from thousands of years ago… probably even better than the ones from centuries ago.  So our focus can easily fall to maintaining that high standard of living.  We can easily start to spin our wheels on material items that are solely of this temporal life.  I believe this is one reason why Jesus said it is very hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In many families with children, both parents have full-time jobs, which means time with their kids is more limited due to household chores that must be met, such as laundry, grocery shopping, cleaning, and cooking.  As soon as the parents are off work, that work must start.  Their time with their kids and each other is more limited.  I’ve seen that for Millennials, though many have called this generation lazy and entitled, are people who have two to three part-time jobs or who have what they call a “side hustle” to make more income… and as a result of these factors our relationships and the vocational duties necessary within these relationships can easily take precedent over the one necessary relationship – which is with Jesus, our good portion.

For many kids in school today, the work load has increased drastically from how it was a couple of decades ago.  The curriculum in most schools keep expanding and the credential process for schools has become more extensive so more work is given to verify that the students are learning what they are supposed to learn.  Kids are now expected to have many extracurricular activities to stand out in college applications – many of which end up occurring on Sundays.  In addition to this, to keep up with the financial status of their peers, some teens are working part-time jobs to get the latest phone or the new pair of Jordans.

In all the hustle and bustle… we are like Martha, anxious and troubled and working towards good things in many instances but have missed the good portion of the Lord in our work, and often times we end up missing the loved ones in our lives. 

Grace in the World:

Jesus says don’t be worried or anxious about tomorrow.  Don’t worry about what you’re going to wear, or what you’re going to eat, or where you’re going to sleep.  Doesn’t God provide for the birds and the grass —- and how much more important and loved by God are you than birds and grass?

Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.  He invites you to come to him – everyone who is heavy-burdened and that he will give you rest for your soul.

Jesus says I come not to be served, but to serve.

Jesus washes his disciples’ feet… not the other way around.

Jesus says abide in me, and you will bear fruit.  It’s a promise!  Abide in him, and you will bear fruit.

All of these sayings and actions of Christ are magnified and understood as reliable and true through his death on the cross for our sins and through his resurrection from the dead for our salvation.

This goes back to the Luther quote I previously shared.

We should accustom ourselves to think of our position and work as sacred and well-pleasing to God, not on account of the position and work, but on account of the word and faith from which the obedience and the work flow.”

Our good works should just flow from the faith that we have in Jesus.  When there is resentment, anxiety, and unnecessary stress present in our work – stop and ask… where is Jesus right now?  You are almost 100% likely to have been distracted from Jesus in these moments of labor.  It’s time to take a moment and refocus on Jesus and remember…

Jesus is the best portion of anything you have in this world, because it is in Jesus and Jesus alone that you will have eternal life.  It is in Jesus and Jesus alone that your works can have eternal merit. It is in Jesus and Jesus alone that your labors may be holy.

And knowing this… it’s imperative for us to find rest in Jesus daily.  We know that Jesus comes to us in his Word.  So daily, we need to find time to be in his Word, preferably throughout the day we will remain his Word.  I hope you don’t feel this invitation stop some of your vocational labors to be in God’s Word as an obligation that must be met for pleasing Jesus.  No.  This is for you.  Remember Jesus is the best portion of anything the world has to offer.

If you are not already resting with Jesus in his Word daily… it can be hard to conceive of how to even begin to put this into practice.  Putting aside earthly demands that seem all together necessary to be met for the day at hand can seem impossible.  If someone already doesn’t have time to watch TV due to their family and work demands, it can be hard to find what must be cut out of the schedule for simply resting in God’s Word and for quiet contemplative prayer.

A conversation I had in my last year of high school teaching before going to the seminary has helped me understand this conflict and it has forever changed the way I look at each day’s work.  I was running copies at the printer… and it wasn’t even jamming… but my principal stopped by me and just started preaching.  He said, “You know there is more than we can ever possibly do in a single day.  We can work every hour of the day and not get everything done that we need to get done.  So just don’t worry about doing it all. Just stop when you need to stop.  It’s OK.  You can’t do it all anyways.  It will be there for you tomorrow.”  I took that as my boss giving me permission to not respond to every email the day they come in – if it was going to take away from being with my family, if it was going to take away from being with Jesus.

Knowing that Jesus is the best portion of anything we can have in this world is a good start to having the right motivation to do this.  Just stop doing what you’re doing when you feel you need to stop… Because God never stops coming to you.  He promises to be with you in his word and speak his words to your needs.   When you feel you need rest.  Just stop something on your agenda. God is starting each day new with you.  Stop anything… if you’re missing Jesus in the things you’re doing.  We’ve already seen that it’s possible to miss Jesus when serving Jesus.

First, consider picking a verse with a promise from God within it that you can recite in a breath.  During the time it takes you to breathe in and then breathe out, you can recite that verse.  During those moments when you are stressed and feel anger or anxiety swelling up within you as you work… stop… breathe in and breathe out, saying that verse.

[Breathing in] God is my refuge

[Breathing out] and my strength.

That is just one example of a breath prayer.  That short breath focused on the Lord can reorient you to properly see your work in light of Christ so that your service might be holy… and that it might flow from faith in the Word.

A second idea to help set aside time to rest in Jesus is to carry a pocket Bible with you or having a Bible app on your phone can help you find the time to rest in the Lord.  When you are in the grocery store line to check out, instead of gawking at the tabloids, eyeing the candy, or swiping through your social media feed on your Smart phone, consider pulling out the Bible and reading a few verses and saying a prayer.  Such actions might even spark conversation in the line… or you might hear a word from the Lord that applies to your life and current situation and it might fill you with such joy and encouragement that not only will it change your mind from anger towards the idiot drivers in rush hour home… but it will give you a word from Jesus to share with your loved ones at the dinner table.  Bringing the eternal spiritual bread into your evening’s physical meal of bread.

When our vocational demands press against our time to worship on Sundays, we might have to get creative.

I’m reminded of the time I was placed in a teaching position in China that required me to work at nights and all day on Sundays, so that I could not attend any mid-week or Sunday church services.  At the time, getting out of this predicament wasn’t an option.  But a blessing is that I ended up reading my Bible more during this time of my life than ever before.  Since I didn’t have work in the mornings, I routinely took my Bible to a shop nearby my apartment and I read it Monday through Friday for an hour or longer while eating breakfast and drinking tea.  I would sometimes do this for lunch too.  When I saw people that I suspected were Christian, I always went out of my way to speak with them and I had many great encounters with fellow believers that year, and I believe I read the Bible more in that year than any other year of my life.

I’m reminded of the college student who worked every Sunday service and Sunday school time as a preschool supervisor.  She took great care of my daughter, Arabella, and the other young kids. I was worried for her, because I didn’t know if she was able to attend any services with this work schedule.  I knew that our church didn’t offer any other service times that she could attend.  So I asked her about this one day, and she told me that she still attended church, but she did so by finding a Saturday service.  Wonderful.

There are always moments to rest with Jesus, because he’s always there for us and he invites us to rest with him and partake in his love and compassion for us.  He truly is the best portion of anything a person can ever have in this world.  Amen.

Roman Catholicism on Justification by Grace Alone

A friend of yours who is a Roman Catholic asks you the following question: “When I hear descriptions of the Reformation, I usually hear that the distinctive feature of Lutheran theology is that we are justified by grace alone.  But my church also teaches that we are justified by grace alone.  So is there any real difference between us on this part?”

To be clear the Reformation distinction is more nuanced than just saying we are justified by grace alone.  The distinction is that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and that we know all of this by Scripture alone.  The Calvinist reformers typically add that all of this is to the glory of God alone.  The word alone is spoken in all of these prepositional phrases to stress that our individual works, or merits, are completely void in our salvation.  Grace does not involve our works.  Faith is not our work.  Christ’s work alone is where our faith clings for salvation.

This is not what Rome means when Roman Catholics speak of being saved by grace alone.  For Rome, our works are still involved in our justification.

To demonstrate this point directly, one can look at the Council of Trent’s Cannons on Justification:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).

And…

“If any one saith, that man is truly absolved from his sins and justified, because he assuredly believed himself absolved and justified; or, that no one is truly justified but he who believes himself justified; and that, by this faith alone, absolution and justification are effected; let him be anathema” (Canon 14).

Anathema is a very strong word.  It means accursed or eternally condemned.

Such statements reject the Reformation teaching that justification is completely void of our works.  A rewording of Canon 9 from the negative stance to the positive would state that “something else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that this is in every way necessary.”  To my knowledge Rome never states directly that we are justified by grace and works, but such statements push one to such a conclusion.  To demonstrate in more detail how Rome teaches that our works are involved in justification, one only needs to look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on this doctrine:

Justification includes the remission of sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man” (CCC, par. 2019).

“No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods” (CCC, par. 2027)

In the first quote from the CCC, it is plainly stated that justification includes not just the remission of sins, but also sanctification and the renewal of the inner man.  This definition of justification points us not to the work of Christ alone for our justification, but instead it turns us inward on ourselves.  How am I doing?  Am I progressing enough in sanctification?  Am I experiencing this inner renewal day by day?  When we are honest with ourselves and uphold the full instruction of God’s commands and demands for us, such an inner turn for our justification can only lead to despair.  Since in Rome’s definition of justification, the work of Christ alone and his righteousness are not the sole means by which we are justified, we lose all assurance, confidence, and certainty of salvation.  The second quote I provided from the CCC details this further with the clear words that “we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life.”  Merit by definition involves my works, and according to Rome, I am even capable of working to merit the graces necessary for the eternal life of others too!

These graces that I can merit are found in the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation (or Chrismation), the Eucharist, Penance, the Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony. Concerning the graces of these sacraments, the CCC states:

“The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions” (CCC, par. 1131).

Here the CCC stresses that to receive the graces proper to each sacrament one must receive them with the required dispositions – this again involves our merit, our work.

In Reformation theology, justification is the work of God alone.  Our work, or merit, or required disposition, is not a qualifier for our justification at all.  In Reformation theology, justification is instantaneous – at the moment of faith – a person is declared justified, declared righteous in God’s sight on account of Christ’s righteousness, though we are still sinful.  Sanctification in Reformation theology, unlike in Roman Catholic theology, is distinct from justification; in Reformation theology, it is not part of justification, but in Roman Catholic theology it is, as was previously quoted from the CCC.  Sanctification is a process, a life-long process of becoming less and less sinful, more and more like Christ and his image of perfect righteousness.  This process is not always a constant upward motion of increased holiness.  There are dips and valleys in this life-long process of sanctification, which is in Reformation theology is viewed as the process of becoming what we were already declared to be in justification.  This process is never complete this side of heaven.

This proper distinction of justification and sanctification in Reformation theology gives the person who has received God’s grace through faith the assurance and confidence that his or her sins are forgiven, because on account of Christ’s innocent, bitter suffering and death, that person is truly forgiven – instantly at the moment of faith.  In Roman Catholic theology, because there is no proper distinction between justification and sanctification, one cannot look to Christ’s saving work through his death and resurrection alone.  The person must look at their process of growing in holiness as the gauge of their justification.  Since the person will always have sin in his or her life and since God alone is the true judge of righteousness, the Roman Catholic who believes the doctrines of the papacy will have no assurance, no comfort, and no confidence of his or her eternal salvation.  This wreckage to our certainty of salvation is what inserting our work into justification always produces.

Metcalf’s Definition of Original Sin in Response to Sam Harris

R.C Metcalf has written a counterpoint to Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation.  In this article, I will only address Metcalf’s presentation of original sin within his counterpoint, not his entire rebuttal to Harris’ open letter.  Metcalf introduces the Christian doctrine of original sin into his rebuttal as a way of pointing out that mankind is by nature prone to sin as a way of illustrating that we have a greater problem than just needing to be concerned about the promotion of morality as a way to increase human happiness and lessen suffering.  Metcalf understands that we need a full restoration of humanity, a solution that only God can provide.  Moving forward in this paper I will focus on evaluating Metcalf’s description of original sin and his method of persuading Harris to accept original sin. I will make this evaluation on the basis of the Lutheran Confessions, which I believe to be an accurate exposition of the teachings of Scripture*.

First, I want to address Metcalf’s description of original sin.  Metcalf writes, “We are not all born with the burden of Adam’s specific sin pressing down upon us.”  On the contrary, we are all born, even conceived, in a state of guilt having inherited a sinful nature that comes from Adam’s specific sin.  Article I of the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord states, “As a result of Satan’s seduction through the fall, human beings, in accord with God’s judgment and sentence, have as their punishment lost the original righteousness with which they were created” (Kolb, p. 536.27).  This punishment is defined in the same article as such: “The punishment and penalty for original sin, which God laid upon Adam’s children and upon original sin, is death, eternal damnation, and also “other corporal” and spiritual, temporal, and eternal miseries, “the tyranny and domination of the devil”’ (Kolb, p. 534.13).  As such, “this inherited defect is guilt, which causes us all to stand in God’s disfavor and to be “children of wrath by nature” because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, as the Apostle testifies in Romans 5[:12]” (Kolb, p. 533.9).

Second, Metcalf expresses that original sin is “an inherent tendency toward sinful behavior; a sense of selfishness that yields a desire to promote our own personal happiness.” Metcalf’s use of the word tendency lessens the severity of our sinful disease that invades all of our humanity. He even closes this section by stating that we have the capacity to do good, it’s just that “we do not have the capacity to only do good; we must also sin.” This is another point in which Metcalf is in error, since the inherited defect of guilt in original sin is not just a “tendency toward sinful behavior.”  This defect places us all in a state of total depravity, so that we by nature cannot approach God or do anything to please him in any way apart from God’s work in us to produce any goodness.  Original sin is not just the tendency for us to sin; it is the cause of our sin.  The Apology of the Augsburg Confession in Article II explains that we have only two options concerning our relationship to God due to Original Sin: “For our weak nature, because it cannot fear, love, or believe in God, seeks and loves carnal things; it either despises the judgment of God in its complacency or hates it in its terror” (Kolb 115.24).  In other words, we are bound to sin and are incapable of doing good by God’s standard.  To be accurate, we can speak of our doing good by the standards placed upon us by our society or culture, but not by the standards of God.  This is another flaw in Metcalf’s description of original sin – there is no clear definition of morality, most importantly there is no clear standard for absolute, universal morality.

Third, I want to address Metcalf’s approach to convincing Harris of the reality of original sin.  From Harris’ open letter, he assumes that Harris won’t accept the words of the Apostle Paul on this issue, so he adopts the approach of speaking of evolutionary theory and his perception of evidences of selfishness in all of us from birth.  This is the wrong approach to convincing someone of original sin.  Metcalf is trying to reason with Harris using observations of our human experience to bring him into a recognition of original sin, however, reason alone cannot lead to a knowledge of original sin.  In Article I of the Third Part of the Articles of the Smalcald Articles of the Lutheran Confessions, it is confessed, “This inherited sin has caused such a deep, evil corruption of nature that reason does not comprehend it; rather, it must be believed on the basis of the revelation in the Scriptures (Ps. 51[:5] and Romans 5[:12]; Exod. 33[:20]; Gen. 3[:6ff.])” (Kolb p. 311.3).  Understanding original sin is not optional, because our view of the cross is directly related to our view of sin.  Article II of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession explains this point stating that “we cannot know the magnitude of Christ’s grace unless we first recognize our malady” (Kolb, p. 117.33).  Despite Metcalf’s assumption that Harris won’t accept Paul’s words, those words are exactly what Metcalf must share and what Harris must hear in order to be convicted of sin so as to receive the only true solution to our predicament of suffering – the sweetness of the Gospel message received in saving faith.

Finally, knowing that it is through the revelation of God in Scripture that one can alone come to the knowledge of both sin and God’s saving grace, one must opt to defend the truthfulness of this doctrine through the use of Scripture.  This is not done by convincing people that everyone is selfish from birth through anecdotes of crying infants… the truthfulness of this doctrine is defended by defending the truthfulness of Scripture by pointing people to the reality of the empty tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  As the Apostle Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15, “If Christ is not raised, then the Christian faith is a lie.”  We do not have to trust that Scripture is the Word of God by its description of itself apart from other evidence as Harris suggests Christians and all religious adherents do of their sacred texts.  Christians can approach the New Testament Gospels as historical documents.  We can see that their text has been reliably transmitted to us today.  We can see that they are internally consistent and that their authors intend to convey factual information that they claim to have seen firsthand or that they are relaying the testimonies of people who were eyewitnesses.  We can see that there are no competing testimonies from the first century, and that the Jews and Romans who both had the motive and the means to disprove the testimonies of the Gospel writers and the apostles could not produce the bones of Jesus.  The best that they could do was persecute the apostles and the other believers in an attempt to shut them up!  Such persecutions were unable to stop them from speaking their witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.  They had no earthly reason to fabricate this message – to lie – especially under such physical and emotionally distress of physical death. We can trust their testimonies and thus the words of Christ they record for us in which he affirmed the Old Testament Scriptures to be the Word of God and gave his seal of approval on the teachings of the apostles that were to come (the New Testament Scriptures).  We can then trust that the Scriptures are the Word of God and thus believe the revelation of Original Sin that can be known from Scripture alone.

* For Bible verses on Original Sin please watch my video: “Scripture Verses for Original Sin”

Book of Concord quotes from the following translation:

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000)

Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation

Metcalf’s Counterpoint

In the person of Christ, God died!

The following is a scenario that is anticipated to arise in a Bible class discussion of Jesus of Nazareth’s death.

Andy: (Referring to the following verses on a class handout: John 3:16-17, 1 Tim 2:5-6, Romans 5:18, 2 Cor. 5:14-15, Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, John 12:32, 2 Peter 2:1) Scripture teaches that on the cross, the Son of God died as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all mankind.  This is in opposition to the Calvinist teaching that Jesus only died for those that will be with Christ for all eternity.

Jesus' DeathBill: Andy, I agree that Scripture teaches universal or general atonement, but I have a question about your statement that the Son of God died.  Technically, the Son of God only died according to his human nature.  Isn’t that right?

Andy: That’s a good question. I’ve heard this question before from someone who sent me an email after reading my book.  He questioned a line that I wrote in which I said, “In Christ, the divine nature was put to death with his human nature.”  Let me get a gauge here with where everyone is at on this concept, how would you respond to that statement?  “In Christ, the divine was put to death with his human nature.”  True or false?

Nancy:  I would think like Bill… that Jesus only died as a human, not as God.

Jack: Yea, it was only as a human that Jesus suffered and died, not as God.

Andy:  Why would you say that, Jack?

Jack: Because God can’t be tempted, God can’t get tired, God can’t get hungry, God can’t bleed, God can’t die.  And so that’s why Jesus had to become human, so that he could do these things to be our savior.

Andy: Is that what you are thinking too Nancy and Bill?

Nancy and Bill: Yeah.

Andy: Does anyone want to answer true?

Megan: I think the answer is true, because Jesus is one person with two natures.  He’s fully God and fully man.  That’s why I’ve heard him called the God-Man.  It seems that what happens to Jesus happens to both natures.

Andy:  What Megan has stated does express how the historic church has understood the union of the two natures of Jesus.  Jack was right when he said that it is impossible for God to be tired, hungry, thirsty, tempted, and killed.  So Bill and Nancy, you too are correct on these points, except in Jesus, the divine has assumed a human nature, and according to that human nature, God can experience what would be impossible according to his divine attributes.

Bill:  So because of the union of the divine nature and human nature, is it safe to say that God was entirely dead?

Andy:  Yes.  But only in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (the 2nd person of the Trinity) did God die.  The divine nature did not die in the Father or the Holy Spirit, when Jesus died.  From the moment of the Incarnation, when the 2nd person of the Trinity assumed a human nature, the divine and human natures became united so as to not be separated from his personhood – ever.  If the humanity of Christ is put to physical death, then so too is his divinity.  Since Jesus is fully God, we can say God was tired, hungry, thirsty, tempted, and killed in the person of Christ (the 2nd person of the Trinity). These feelings and experiences were experienced by Jesus in accordance to his human nature, yet due to the union of the natures the divine nature experienced them too.

Bill: So since Jesus’s divine nature could die when he took on a human nature, does that mean his divine nature was in some way reduced?

Andy: We might think that could be the case, but that’s not what Scripture teaches.  The attributes of humanity that Christ experienced of which the Father and the Holy Spirit cannot partake occurred because Jesus allowed them to occur, because he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but instead he humbled himself and chose not to make use of his divine attributes or retain the glory due to him because of his divinity.  In other words, the divine nature did not receive human attributes with the union of the two natures in the person of Christ.  That would be a reduction of Jesus’ divinity, which we know did not occur.  If his divinity is reduced, he could not be our savior.  Does this answer your questions?

Bill:  Well, I guess I have one more question.  Another reason why I thought that Jesus’s divine nature did not die is because Scripture to teach that Jesus holds all things together.  That’s what Colossians 1:17 says, and Hebrews 1:3 states that Jesus upholds all things by the power of his word.  If Jesus died as you are saying, and it makes sense that he died with the way you have explained that death occurring to the person, would his death interrupt his ability to hold all things together by His powerful word?

Andy:  That is a very good question, and it is one that I have considered.  There were certainly signs that the universe was falling apart as the Lord of Glory was dying on the cross, such as the darkening of the sky and the earthquake at his death, so there appears to be some indication that his death did impact his role of holding all things together.  However, we know that the Father and the Holy Spirit did not die.  They could have held everything together.  I also know that before his resurrection, Jesus descended into the prison to proclaim victory.  He wasn’t there suffering.  He could have been holding things together then.

I also know that when we speak of salvation, we speak of Jesus being our savior, because Scripture speaks like this, but we also know that the Father and the Holy Spirit work in our salvation.  The Father sent the Son.  The Father accepts his sacrifice.  The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, gives us faith, and preserves us in that faith, and sanctifies us.  We typically speak of the Father as the Creator, yet we know that Jesus worked in creation, as did the Holy Spirit.  My point here is that just as we typically credit one person of the Trinity with a particular work, as Scripture does at times, we also can see that the other persons are also at work in that way in some capacity.  Therefore, the Father and Holy Spirit could be at work in holding creation together, not just Jesus.  Examples I can think of are that Scripture speaks of God (the Father) giving rain and sunshine to both the righteous and the wicked and giving every good gift in life to us (is that not part of holding creation together)?  Also, Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirit as giving us life (physical and spiritual).  That physical life is an aspect of holding creation together.

That’s the best I can do to address the question about who was holding creation together as Christ was dying in respect to both his divinity and humanity being put to death for our salvation.  And that’s the best I can do to answer that question based on what the Lord has revealed to us in Scripture.

Bill:  That all makes sense.  Thanks for answering my question.

Andy: I’m glad you asked it.  It seems that others had similar thoughts and it is good to work through these questions, because the union of the divine and human natures in Christ are vital to him being our savior.

Megan:  And why is that?

Andy: As the God-Man, Jesus alone was able to redeem mankind from its sinfulness. Being fully divine, he was able to fulfill God’s standard of righteousness. Being fully man, he was able to be tempted and die in our place, suffering hell eternally on the cross. Now that may not make sense, but since Jesus is fully God, he could suffer hell eternally in a short time span; God after all can do all things. And since Jesus is fully God, he was able to die as a replacement for all of mankind. In Christ, the divine nature was put to death with his human nature. The death of God is valuable enough to serve as a vicarious atonement for all of mankind, past, present, and future. No other religion can claim such divine redemption, because no other religion was founded by God incarnate.

Megan:  That makes sense.  Thanks.

Andy: Any more questions on the person and natures of Christ?  If not, we’ll go back to our study of Christ’s atoning death for all of mankind.


In the above discussion I drew upon three kinds of communication between the two natures and the person of Christ and his saving work.  They are the genus idiomaticum (the kind of communication that pertains to the attributes of the natures to the person), genus maiestaticum (the kind of communication that pertains to the majesty of Jesus’ divine nature to his human nature), and genus apotelesmaticum (the kind of communication that pertains to the natures to the work of the person).

In the genus idiomaticum, the attributes of the divine nature and the attributes of the human nature are both communicated to the person of Christ.  This communication is what I was drawing upon when I spoke of the person of Jesus having attributes that come from both attributes.

In the genus maiestaticum, the attributes of the divine nature communicate to the human nature so that the human nature may receive divine attributes.  This communication is one way; the divine nature does not receive attributes from the human nature, otherwise, Jesus would not be divine.  This communication is what I was drawing upon when answering Bill’s question of if Jesus being able to die meant there was a reduction of his divinity.

In the genus apotelesmaticum, both natures are always at work in whatever the person of Christ does – or in the question at hand, in whatever is done to the person of Christ, both natures are involved – even when dying.

Jesus’ Triumphant Entry – Palm Sunday Exegetical Study Part 2

This is a 5 step exegetical study of Matthew 21:1-11. This passage of Scripture is usually labeled to be a narrative of “Jesus’ Triumphant Entry” and it is often times remembered the Sunday before Easter, often times called Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday. Part 1 contains Steps 1 and 2 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Text and Translation Notes” and “Literary Analysis.”  Part 2 contains Steps 3, 4, and 5 of this 5 step exegetical study: “Historical-Cultural Context,” “The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession,” and “Personal and Pastoral Application.”

Palm Sunday 2

Part III – Historical-Cultural Context

What is the significance of riding a donkey?

Smith expresses that by choosing to enter the city on a donkey, Jesus was in no way acting unroyal, but instead acting as a king in time of peace, not needing to enter with the show of chariots, horses, and weapons of war.  (Smith, 244)

Is there any indication as to what the crowds expected of Jesus through their actions in this text?

The recounting of this entry into Jerusalem occurs on a church calendar day, often times called, Palm Sunday.  As noted in Part I, Matthew’s text does not say that the branches that were cut were palm branches.  Only John mentions palm branches, which were an “ancient symbol of victory and glory” (Smith, 244).”  Since palms symbolized victory, Leon Morris suggests that “it would seem that […] these people were trying to make a political messiah out of him” (Morris, 518).  By Jesus sending for the donkey, as we see from the Synoptists, we can then understand “by his symbolic action that he was not the potential overthrower of the Romans that the crowds would dearly have loved to see” (Morris, 519).  The impression then is that the crowds expected Jesus to rise to kingship through a revolt that they were willing to back him in through their shown enthusiasm.  This is not however why Jesus was entering into the city.  He came as the King of Peace, bringing peace between God and man through the shedding of his blood.

Unknowingly they were selecting their Passover lamb. 

According to Exodus 12, on the tenth day of Nisan the Jews were to select a year-old lamb that was without defect.  They were to keep this lamb in their household until the fourteenth day of Nisan when they were to kill it without breaking its bones and cover their doorframes with its blood in preparation for the Passover.  The day that Jesus entered Jerusalem was the tenth of Nisan.  The crowds that thought they were selecting their king (potentially some or maybe most even thought he was their Maccabean-style Roman Overthrowing Messiah) were unknowingly selecting their Passover lamb who was in their midst in Jerusalem and in the temple every day until his death, in which his bones were not broken and whose blood they asked to be on the them and their children, not the doors of their homes.  (Matthew 27:25)

Part IV – The Broader Biblical and Historical Confession

Though it is not in the Book of Concord, Luther’s Small Catechism has often times had an accompanying explanation section that wasn’t written by Luther.  In Concordia Publishing Houses 2017, “An Explanation of the Small Catechism,” the question, “What does it mean that our Lord Jesus is called the Christ,” has the following answered supplied:

In the Old Testament, God set certain people apart as prophets, priests, and kings by anointing them with oil.  The title Christ or Messiah means “Anointed One.”  In the New Testament, Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit to be our Prophet, Priest, and King.  (“Explanation of Small Catechism”, p. 192)

To answer the question, “What does it mean for us to speak of Jesus as our Priest,” the answer supplied is: “As our Priest, Jesus offered Himself as the sacrifice for our sin, and He intercedes with the Father on our behalf” (“Explanation of Small Catechism”, p. 193)

In light of this broader Biblical and historical confession, we realize that the crowds that claimed Jesus as their king with Messianic titles and proclaimed him as a prophet failed to recognize or understand the necessary work of his third office of priest. It isn’t until after Jesus is raised from the dead that the Old Testament Scriptures are opened up to the disciples to understand why the Messiah had to suffer and die as their high priest.

Part V – Personal and Pastoral Application

Like the crowds in this passage, Christians, in our sinfulness, far too often approach Jesus (or the Triune God) with expectations and understandings of who he is and what his work is to be that are contrary to how he is revealed to us in Scripture.

For instance, we might approach God as a Black Hawk Helicopter God. We expect him to swoop in and save us from all of our trials and tribulations. But is such deliverance from all earthly afflictions promised in Scripture? No, it’s not. God is not a Black Hawk Helicopter God.

Another example of a false approach is to treat God as a magic genie! We simply approach him again and again for things that we need and want, and that’s it. That’s the bulk of our interaction with him. What happens when such prayers are not answered in the affirmative? Will our faith be shaken? Will others who are not Christians, laugh and mock our God for not responding to our prayers as we expect him to?

Sometimes we treat God as a vending machine. We expect to get blessings from him, but they come at an expense! We have to pay in some fashion to receive God’s gifts. We treat all of our dealings with God in transactional terms: I prayed; I went to Church; I went on that mission trip; so I expect x, y, or z, from you in return, God!  For me now, the temptation is to approach God in this fashion, expecting him to come through with a call to a church that meets my desires (or more like my wife’s desires) and to leave here debt free with enough money stockpiled for a down payment on a home – and why wouldn’t God do these things?  I left home and a great job that I loved to be here…

Works cited:

“An Explanation of the Small Catechism” copyright © 2017 Concordia Publishing House.

Morris, Leon.  The Gospel According to Matthew.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.

Smith, Robert H.  Matthew.  Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1989.