Thursday, July 1, 2010

We Draw Our Life from the Means of Grace

Quoting Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Professor John Brenner, from his presentation to the 2009 WELS Biennial Convention titled "Christ's Love":

We cannot put the Holy Spirit on a timetable or expect him to work according to our schedule. We sow the seed. He produces the results he wants. In the Augustana we confess, "For through the Word and sacraments as through instruments the Holy Spirit is given, who effects faith where and when it pleases God" (Augsburg Confession, V, 2).

Sometimes we cannot see any results from our proclamation of the gospel. At times the church may seem to disappear. The prophet Elijah thought that he was the only believer left in the entire Northern Kingdom of Israel. God had to reveal to him, "Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him: (1 Kings 19:18). Sometimes the faithful proclamation of God‘s Word may lead to a visible decline in numbers. After Jesus‘ great Bread of Life discourse we read, "On hearing it, many of his disciples said, 'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?' . . . From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him" (John 6:60, 66). At other times the Holy Spirit may grant amazing visible results. After St. Peter‘s Pentecost sermon 3,000 were added to the church (Acts 2:41). The wicked city of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah (Jonah 3:5; see also Matthew 12:41). Through Word and sacraments the Holy Spirit "effects faith where and when it pleases God."

At least one person seeing the declining numbers in our Wisconsin Synod has lamented that we are a dying church. That statement cannot be further from the truth. We draw our life from the means of grace. So long as the gospel is rightly proclaimed in our midst and the sacraments are rightly administered the Holy Spirit is sustaining our life and extending it. A church dies when it no longer proclaims the gospel and administers the sacraments. A synod is in trouble only when it no longer treasures the means of grace or doubts the efficacy of Word and sacraments. American ideas of progress and success center on visible results. God‘s definition of success is faithfulness to his Word and the work he has given us to do (Revelation 2:8-11; 1 Corinthians 4:1-4).

Faithfulness requires that we always do our best and try our hardest to communicate the gospel clearly. For the means of grace are always efficacious, but they do not work magically.

...As good Americans we can be tempted to judge success by the bottom line and to think that if only we discover the right method or do things in the right way, numerical success must follow. Our synod does not seem to be growing. Church attendance and Bible class attendance are not breaking any records. Even though we live in a wealthy nation, our congregations and synod do not seem to have enough money to do the work we would like to do. We set goals and don‘t reach them. We work hard, yet don‘t see the results we hoped for or the success we anticipated. We hear a lot of grumbling and complaining. And it is easy to become frustrated.

We will therefore want to be careful that in our frustration over the apparent lack of visible success in our congregations and synod we lose confidence in the power of the gospel. Sectarian authors often offer new methods to ensure success and can even point to visible results. However, we will always want to examine their methodology and its presuppositions before adopting or adapting what they offer. Sectarian authors as a rule do not understand the means of grace or how the Holy Spirit works. Their methodology may be based on false presuppositions. The first question that a confessional Lutheran will want to ask when considering methodology is not "does it work?" but is "is it faithful to God‘s Word?"

1 comment:

Lorna Osborne said...

Numbers do not mean a church is healthy. I am leaving the LCMS because the means of grace and the message of the gospel are NOT rightly proclaimed in either of our two local churches. However, the story is quite different down the street at the WELS. The numbers are very small but the spiritual food is a banquet.