Every once in a while a suggestion is made to change or abolish religious holidays. The matter has been discussed in Christian circles. Some are for it, others are against it. What can we say about this matter?
The principles involved must first be considered. Does the Bible command us to observe certain religious holidays? If the Bible makes this demand, then the Christian Church is obligated to observe them. If the Bible does not demand this, then Christians are free to decide how and when they will observe holidays.
During the Old Testament times the children of Israel were commanded to observe many different types of festivals. They prefigured Christ and His Kingdom of peace.
When Christ came these symbols were fulfilled and lost their meaning. New Testament Christians are now told: "Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day" (Col. 2:16). There is no longer any kind of a festival or Sabbath that a Christian is commanded to observe with the threat of losing his salvation if he fails to do so.
When false teachers demanded that the Galatian Christians observe certain days and festivals if they wished to be saved, Paul wrote the following words to them: "You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain" (Gal. 4:10,11).
The observance of religious holidays is therefore a free matter which Christians can agree on among themselves on the basis of love and expediency. The first Christians did not even observe Christmas, which to us is perhaps the leading Church festival besides Easter. Christians, however, have always adhered to the Scriptural message and the doctrines that are associated with the different festivals.
Non?Christian people cannot be forced to observe Christian practices by decrees. Those who have a mutual faith can agree among themselves as to how they will observe Christian festivals, but they do not have the right to ask the unbelieving world to do the same.
For example in the United States Christians work on Good Friday and only pause to hear the message of the Cross in the afternoon or evening, whereas in our country it is a national holiday. We prefer to have Good Friday as a holiday. Perhaps Christians in the United States would prefer this too, but they do not sin by working on that day.
Religious holidays have been a great blessing when God's Word has been given the opportunity to sanctify us. As such they still have value, but otherwise, no.
The account of Jonah in the belly of a large fish has become the criterion by which we can judge whether or not a person believes the Bible. It is a good criterion. It is difficult for an ordinary landlubber to fit into his own sphere of experience the Biblical account: "And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights" (Jonah 2:1). The word "fish" in the original language means a large sea creature. The human mind may rebel when it comes to the account of Jonah and conclude: "A myth." In this way we can solve the intellectual difficulty, but in so doing we set forth an unproven argument. Even though someone did not believe the Bible for the reason that it is God's Word, he could at least study the matter. He could find out whether sea creatures that are able to swallow a man have appeared in the Mediterranean Sea or elsewhere. He could study literature to determine whether others have had experiences similar to Jonah's. This method of study would expand the landlubber's sphere of experience and he would have to admit that the account of Jonah is not impossible even from the standpoint of nature, and that it is not the only one of its type.
However, we can never believe in the factuality of the Bible if we demand that all difficulties must first be solved. Cannot one person ask more, than a hundred wisemen can answer? Trust in the Bible is born when we learn to know Jesus as the One who atoned for our sins. We cannot doubt our merciful Savior. Faith in Jesus and faith in the factuality of the Bible go hand in hand. Both of the main principles of the Reformation (for Christ's sake alone, the Bible is the only rule of faith) are inseparable. We do not have to try to determine which comes first - faith in Christ or faith in the factuality of the Bible ? but we must rather proclaim Christ according to the Bible. The faith that is born as a result of such proclamation does not choose what to believe, but confesses: "I believe everything written in the Law and the Prophets" (Acts 24:14).
When we have such faith we believe Christ's words: "For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea?monster; so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matt. 12:40). If we do not believe the account of Jonah, why then should we believe the other words of Jesus? If we do not believe Jesus in this matter we make Him a liar.
The Bible is inerrant because it has been born by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth.
The Christian faith has two sides: It is both trust and doctrine. These two cannot be separated from each other. It has often been asked: Is it not enough to believe in Christ? Is confession also necessary? To this we must reply that faith in Christ cannot exist without a revelation of what Christ is and of what He has spoken to us.
The Apostle Paul said: "I know whom I have believed." We cannot know Christ unless we have a revelation of Him. This revelation is the Holy Bible. Paul emphasizes this fact: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." Trusting in Christ as the Savior from sin and the One who forgives sin is possible only when faith has content or doctrine. "By which (the Gospel) also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you," says the Apostle (1 Cor. 15:1?5). Disparaging or ignoring doctrine leads to the abandonment of the Christian faith.
John the Baptist confessed his faith and was true to the divine revelation (John 1:20). So too every Christian must confess and not deny, for his Savior has redeemed him with a precious price and also wants to save others through his confession.
It follows, therefore, that the Church in this world also needs a confession whose every article consists of Christian doctrine taken from the Bible.
The Lutheran Church has Confessions. It is ready to give an answer to everyone who asks him concerning the basis of our hope (1 Pet. 3:15). The Lutheran Confessions provide a firm foundation in matters pertaining to faith to every sincere seeker - even in this present time. We only have to study them diligently. In our present age, with its many different schools of thought, it is difficult to survive unharmed unless we have a right understanding of the foundation of our faith.
We need a "confessional revival".
Jesus gave His disciples the task of proclaiming the Gospel in all the world to all people. The Apostles went and preached Christ and Him crucified. The message of forgiveness of sins in Christ is the heart and core of the Gospel.
Jesus did not send His disciples into the world in order to correct the failings of society. Taking care of matters pertaining to this world is not the task of the Church. This task belongs to the State. The Church and society are two different things. All people are part of society. Only those who wre baptized and believed in Christ were actual members of the congregations described in the Bible. In the Bible there is not a single instance of the Church trying to pressure society to change. Neither is there an example of the Church submitting to the demands of society or civil authorities when the teachings or the confession of a congregation were involved.
The task of the Gospel is to bring a person into communion with God. The Gospel cleanses the heart of sin through forgiveness. To a heart like this God reveals His will, with the result that a person loves and serves his neighbor. He loves his neighbor because he loves God. The Church can naturally expect such love and service only from its members, who believe. Society cannot be approached by the same motive, but must be governed by law.
A Christian is a member of two kingdomes: of God's Kingdom of grace and of an earthly kingdom. His responsibility is to try to improve society for the sake of God and his conscience. But it is important that he knows by what authority he does this. An individual Christian may engage in politics as a citizen and member of society but not on the basis of his membership in a congregation. Politics is not a matter for the Church. For engaging in politics society has its own means of operation. Through these means Christians try to promote decisions and laws that are morally acceptable and beneficial to society.
It is not possible to govern society by God's Word because God has not given His Word to society. Laws and the sword have been given to the State. Both belivers and unbelievers can be governed by these means. To the Church God has given only the Word and the Sacraments. In matters pertaining to faith believers can be governed by these means.
What shall we say then about dialog between State and Church? Should we as a church body engage in dialog with the State on issues such as religious freedom and ethics? Did not Jesus speak to Pontius Pilate of two Kingdoms (John 20:33-37), and did not the Apostle Paul testify of Christ to Felix (Acts 24:24,25)? In certain crucial matters such as the abortion issue we may, because of love, also ask the State to listen to our testimony (Esther 4:11; 5:1,2). We must always keep the principles in mind, but we must not make them militate against love, which is the content of all law and order.
Jesus warned the Pharisees about committing the sin against the Holy Ghost.
This occured under the following circumstances.
Jesus had healed a man, who was blind and mute. The Pharisees were convinced in their hearts that the miracle was of God. Despite this fact, in a blasphemous way, they claimed that it was the work of the devil. It was then that Jesus said: "Whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come" (Matt. 12:32).
The sin against the Holy Ghost therefore includes matters such as these:
A person rejects the Truth even though the Holy Ghost has revealed it to him and convinced him of it. In addition to this a person blasphemes, and takes a determined stance against the conviction created by the Holy Ghost. The sin is not directed against the person of God's Son, but against the office of the Holy Ghost. This sin cannot be forgiven because it is directed against that activity of the Holy Ghost through which He wants to make a person a partaker of God's grace. With this sin a person places himself into a condition from which he cannot be converted.
All resistance of the Holy Ghost does not constitute this particular sin. From the pastoral perspective there is a simple way of determining whether or not a person has committed this sin: Anyone who fears that he has committed this sin has not committed it. We can comfort those who have a troubled conscience concerning this matter with Christ's grace. For when a person is troubled by his sins, this is an indication that the Holy Ghost is working in him and has not abandoned him. Most assuredly the Holy Spirit wants to create and sustain faith in Christ in such a person's heart.
Also today those who stubbornly resist God's Word need to be warned concerning the sin against the Holy Ghost, especially inasmuch as blasphemy is so general and is committed so openly.
Why should we plunge ourselves into eternal damnation when an eternal festival of joy awaits us!
It has sometimes been argued that faith stems from selfishness; that a person believes only because he wants to avoid eternal punishment and wants what is best for himself. An argument like that includes the supposition, that being concerned about one's own soul is detrimental to our neighbor. The argument also does not take into consideration that a higher power, namely God, wants us to believe, even though we ourselves are not so inclined. Selfishness is the type of stubbornness and lovelessness a person is guilty of when he does not admit that God and His ordinances are above him; when he considers himself to be superior to his neighbor and does not love him as himself. A selfish person is not concerned about God's will, but rather about his own will. He is not concerned about his neighbor's welfare, only about his own.
Faith cannot be the result of selfishness because faith has to do with God's love and honor. By nature a person cannot believe in God's grace at all. Natural man does not accept the Gospel that God offers to him, but stubbornly resists God's will. When trust in the grace of God springs up in the heart, this is due to the work of the Holy Spirit. A person, as he is by nature, does not have the slightest desire to enter God's Kingdom and heaven, where only God's will is carried out and where sin cannot be committed. If, instead, heaven would be a place where sensual pleasures could be enjoyed, or if the future life would consist of owning earthly possessions and having earthly power, this would be of interest to people. But when we proclaim the grace of God and the forgiveness of sins, the world rejects this. In this way the world indicates that true faith is not compatible with its selfish goals.
God created us to live in communion with Him, but we fell into sin. God receives the honor due Him when we return to Him. This is God's will. When in His mercy He draws us, who have gone astray, to Himself, a higher will than ours is carried out. God in His love has given His Son to die for us. In His love He seeks us and draws us to Himself. It is not selfish to follow God's gracious will, even though this benefits us. Through faith in Jesus we receive heavenly treasures for ourselves. But it is not selfishness to accept God's love. On the contrary selfishness is acting on our own and not taking God's will and the needs of our neighbor into consideration. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves. This includes the right and the necessity of taking care of ourselves in the right way. We do not consider eating or clothing ourselves to be selfishness when we are in need of food and shelter from the cold, as long as we do not at the same time let our neighbor starve and freeze to death. God's will is that we do not mistreat ourselves. This pertains to both temporal and eternal matters.
Trusting in God's grace redounds not only to God's glory and our good but also to the good of our neighbor in a completely new way. When we ourselves believe, we can also help lead others to faith and serve them in other ways. A believer does not seek only his own good. Selfishness means not being concerned about others. Christianity is not like that. Unbelief is selfishness. An unbeliever stubbornly follows his own will and is not concerned about the glory of God and the salvation of his neighbor.
Justification is usually a strange word to most people because it is not a part of our everday vocabulary. In its spiritual sense, however, it is a word rich in content.
The Bible explains justification in this way: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account" (Rom. 4:7,8). In ourselves we are sinners, but when God has granted us forgiveness through faith in Jesus, He does not see any faults in us. Paul writes: "God justifies the ungodly" (Rom. 4:5). God grants forgiveness to us who of ourselves, with all our works, are completely unworthy, ungodly. Our Reformer, Dr. Martin Luther, in fact says that justification is the same as forgiveness of sins for Christ's sake.
When the Bible speaks of a person's justification in God's sight, it is referring to a person being declared righteous or justified. This person is not changed into a sinless person. Jesus' righteousness or holiness is ascribed to him.
What does the fact that God justifies the ungodly mean to us? It means that our works do not save us. "All of our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment" (Is. 64:6). If we think that we are acceptable to God without Christ, we are mistaken. The noblest person does not have a righteousness of his own that is acceptable to God. All he can bring before God is sin. God does not justify saints but ungodly people. This is a comforting truth to a person who is experiencing terrors of conscience. Our works are not needed for attaining salvation. God does not require them as a prerequisite for reaching heaven, but rather, as a free gift He gives us Christ's perfect work, His subtitutionary suffering and death.
The person who thinks he has progressed far enough in sanctification so that God will be able to take his works into consideration in granting salvation, has gone astray, far from Christ, and has succumbed to spiritual pride.
A Christian is both a righteous person and a sinner at the same time. He enjoys salvation through faith, but at the same time sighs because of his sins. He is, as it were, in heaven and on earth at the same time, but never dangles between the two.
We crave heartfelt sincerity and unselfish love. When we encounter such sincerity and love, it affects us deeply. We Christians are often poor reflectors of Christ's love. For this reason we should not seek this love from each other but look directly to the Eternal Love, as the Bible describes Christ. Then we will understand that our salvation is in Him alone.
"So His appearance was marred more than any man... He was pierced through for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities" (Is. 52:14, 53:5). "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). "One died for all" (2 Cor. 5:14). "The chastening for our well?being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed" (Is. 53:5). "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13).
In this way the Bible describes the substitionary suffering of God's Son in our behalf.
Let us examine our lives: Just think of all the evil we have done in God's sight. Can you comprehend that God has specifically loved you in Christ and that He sent Him, His own Son, because of you? If we understand the enormity of our sins, we can only be amazed by God's love. God's Son has been sacrificed for the likes of me! But if this is the case, does not His love draw us to Him like a magnet? He exudes heartfelt warmth into our cold hearts. It is good to trust in Him.
Christ's vicarious suffering puts our works to shame. The only basis for our salvation is Christ. "For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11). "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23,34).
Forgiveness of our sins is based on Christ's atonement. If we seek a basis for our salvation in ourselves we are lost. But when we build on Christ the Rock, we are safe.
It is constructive to work together when we are united by a mutual faith, based on Scripture. Christians in confessional Lutheran churches have been blessed in this way.
The ecumenical movement has promoted joint work without doctrinal unity. Its goals, however, have been difficult to achieve in practice. The leaders of the movement receive support for their thinking from those people who have been alienated from Christian faith. But the more serious-minded people with convictions do not wish to make concessions to those with contrary opinions.
In Europe the State Churches have not been able to unite the different factions within their own midst. The like?minded have founded their own organizations. A mutual faith, whether it be right or heterodox, unites people and promotes joint activity. The birth of the different factions and their continued existence already speaks against present day ecumenism. The State Churches are internally divided. The divisions are due to doctrinal differences. When modern ecumenism does not base its efforts to achieve unity on God's Word and on the unity that it brings, its supporters are continually forced to compromise their convictions in their conscience. This leads to chaos. If the various revival movements in the State Churches apply the principles of modern ecumenism as they endeavor to approach each other, they will lose even that little bit of stature that they have had.
What then did Jesus pray for when He said: "That they may all be one?" (John 17:21). This prayer has taken on the nature of a rallying cry. In the minds of people it has come to have the superficial meaning of mere togetherness. To understand the real meaning of Jesus' prayer it is necessary for us to study it in its context.
Jesus prayed: "That they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me" (John 17:21).
We must examine the unity between the Father and the Son to understand how the unity of the Church is to manifest itself. The Father and the Son are one in essence, the one and the same God. Jesus Christ spoke the Father's words and did the Father's deeds and in this way manifested the unity between the Father and Him. "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe in Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me" (John 14:10,11). According to Jesus' own words the unity between the Father and the Son became manifest in this way.
All those who in their hearts believe in Christ according to the words of the Apostles are already one. They constitute Christ's Holy Christian Church, which is one. It is not an external organization. Its members are united by faith which cannot be seen here by human eyes. In this sense the Church is invisible.
The Church, however, has identifying marks: the pure proclamation of the Gospel and the correct administration of the Sacraments. They create faith and nourish it. Where these marks are, there faith is, and there members of that Church are born and are present (Is. 55:6-11). There the true Church can be found and seen functioning. There are many other marks of the Church such as love, the cross and prayer. Also non-Christians may pray and show love and they may have to suffer because of their convictions. But only the first mentioned marks are sure and "undeceiving" ("untrüglich", Dr. C.F.W. Walther).
Jesus prayed that His own in all their activity would make known the fact that they are His Church. Then they would have the words of that Church, which is the foundation and pillar of the Truth. They would also have the deeds of that Church: the right confession, proclamation and Christian love. This means assembling in local congregations in doctrinal unity, and not just being together outwardly. This also means church fellowship, mutual love and joint work where possible with other congregations and churches of the same doctrine and confession.
What we do is not essential, but what God has done, does and will do. God's Church gathers around the Word and Sacraments and lives of the Gospel, which is the message of the completed work of the crucified and risen Christ, the message of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in the same Christ. In seeking this, we come to Christ and find Him in the Word and Sacraments. At the same time we find each other in the same Christ, parnoned through faith. He confesses us as His own brothers and sisters. And because we are His brothers and sisters, we are also brothers and sisters among ourselves, one family, one Body of Christ, one Church. All this is the work of God, the Holy Spirit alone. It is not our own accomplishment.
When Christians understand the essence of the Church from this perspective, their activity in local congregations and church bodies, can remain correct and constructive in spirit. The main feature of all activity will be proclaiming and glorifying Christ through the Word and Sacraments, in order that the Holy Spirit may do His work when and where He pleases, "that the world may believe". Christians who undestand the essence of the Church in the above way will also carry out their activity in a spirit of love. They will strive to love their brethren, their fellowmen and even their enemies.
First be one; then be together.
Jesus' prayer helps us to reject all false opinions, to become like?minded under His Word, and proclaim His Gospel in the truth. If this were to happen, what a powerful message it would be to the world. Unity is strength.
There are three great gifts that God has given and still gives to His own. They are faith, hope and love. Each one is better than the other, and we need them all.
Faith is the most valuable in the respect that without it, there can be no hope or love. Faith, you see, accepts Christ in whom we have forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Salvation is by grace alone for Christ's sake. We are not saved because of our good works or because of our love. "If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly" (Gal. 2:21). Because salvation is through faith in Christ alone, this means that Christ is the only foundation of our salvation. Our faith is not an acceptable foundation. We are not acceptable to God because of our faith, but because of Christ. We need faith, but it is not meritorious. Faith is the greatest in the respect that through it alone we receive salvation.
Christian hope is the assurance that this time of sin and tribulation will one day come to an end and we will attain the undisturbed bliss of heaven. Hope convinces us of the fact that what we now possess in faith we will possess by sight. In this way hope encourages Christians so that they have the strength to continue onward on the road of faith.
Faith and hope are, however, only temporary and belong to this world. In heaven we will no longer need faith. There we will be free of all sin. Neither will we need hope in heaven because all of God's promises will have been fulfilled and we will behold our Savior face to face.
In respect to endurance love is greater than both faith and hope. "But now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13). "Love never fails" (1 Cor. 13:8). Love is eternal. Faith in Christ produces love. When lovelessness afflicts us, let us behold the One who is Eternal Love, who though innocent, suffers for our sins, and in return is blasphemed and treated shamefully, but who nevertheless prays for those who persecute Him.