Monday, April 7, 2008

How About Absolute Attention?

In the oft-repeated quote Lord Acton writes, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Can we apply the same thinking to attention? If a preacher is getting some attention locally for an engaging personality and is liked well enough to be given the opportunity to start a “television ministry”, in some ways a first for a preacher of his particular synod, is there a temptation to shift the focus of the message preached off of Christ and onto the preacher himself? We think so, for this is sinful human nature. Even we Christians will tend to put ourselves first, direct the spotlight onto ourselves, and bask in the head-swelling glow of fawning attention paid by anyone who will support us.

The correct answer to the game below is, as you know, C. This quote was taken from the Winter/Spring 2008 edition of Time of Grace Magazine and was written by Pastor Mark Jeske, who is a WELS pastor, as far as we can tell. The Time of Grace website is not terribly forthcoming on either Jeske’s or his congregation’s (St. Marcus Church in Milwaukee, WI-Wasn’t it formerly called St. Marcus Lutheran Church?) synodical affiliation. However, the official WELS website links to Time of Grace Ministry, so we believe it safe to assume that both he and his congregation are WELS.

You may have seen Pr. Jeske last summer at a synod convention. Oddly, you would not have seen him at the WELS convention but the LCMS one, which has caused some other WELS pastors to twist their colorful neckties in frustration. Why would a WELS pastor attend the LCMS convention but not the convention of his own synod? Was the trip to Houston an attempt at evangelism? Is it really a good idea to try to evangelize away members of another church body during that church body’s convention? Or, was this an offer to “help” with the ministries of LCMS congregations by directing their members to the Time of Grace television program? If so, wouldn’t this be participating in an expression of the faith with the LCMS and be a fellowship issue for the WELS?

The quotation for Spot the Lutheran was taken from Pastor Jeske’s featured message (sermon?) for this issue. The entire message sounds disturbingly similar to most other protestant televangelists. The first and second pages of the four-page message have no mention of Christ or sin. This is the closest we found to the preaching of the Law: “You cannot get to heaven by yourself. You cannot beat death and Satan by yourself any more than you can swim from Long Beach to Hawaii. You have only one chance to get this right, and I would advise you not to dawdle on making up your mind about this, because you cannot guarantee how many more breaths your lungs will suck in.”

Later, Pr. Jeske writes after quoting 1 Corinthians 15:1 (“Brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.”), “I hope that you burn that verse into your memory and carry it around with you for the rest of your life. I hope you will be willing to share those words with other people who are afraid to die, people who live with terror, who drag around guilt and who know no other way to face death”.

This is the first Bible passage to make it into the message. Sadly, 1 Corinthians 15:1 does not say what the gospel is, therefore that verse by itself cannot comfort anguished consciences. You cannot take a stand when the Rock on which to stand has not been proclaimed. Pr. Jeske had only mentioned Jesus in passing before this point. He wrote three paragraphs previous, “Your getting to heaven is done by Jesus as a gift to you, and you grab on to it by believing-by faith.” Ok, though that doesn’t really say what Jesus did. He goes on: “By grace, through faith. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? To find where it says that in the Bible, go to 1 Corinthians, Chapter 15. This is a magnificent essay on what resurrection of the body is all about. It explains the connection between what Christ went through on Easter Sunday and what you and I are investing all of our hopes in.”

This seems somewhat misleading. Christ said “It is finished.” on Friday, not Sunday. To write “what Christ went through on Easter Sunday” sounds like His suffering continued. This is not Lutheran. The price for sin was paid in full by Christ’s suffering and death. And what about that suffering and death on Good Friday? It’s not here. Not directly. We did find it in passing in a few places, but couched in decision theology language, softened by folksy images, and tinged with universalism:

“That message – the message of the gospel – is stained and splattered with blood, his blood, for yours. That is not cheap at all. It’s very expensive and precious. It’s a gift, and it comes through words – words that your granny told you when you sat on her lap and she told you about Jesus rising from the dead, or words your daddy used when he tucked you into bed and prayed with you, ‘I pray the Lord my soul to take.’”

“So here it is; it’s this or nothing. Make up your mind right now. What is going to be your plan when your life comes to an end? I want to assure you that the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrates that everything he said is real, including his words on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them…’

Remember his words, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’ He said that to a slimy criminal receiving the death sentence, but the same goes for you. What if Jesus said to you, ‘You might think of yourself as a failure, a sinner, a loser – but today you will be with me in paradise.’”

“You are clean in the blood of the Lamb, and the resurrection guarantees that the Father accepted his payment for you and stamped your account paid in full.”

For a Lutheran pastor, something is missing. Where are the Sacraments? As Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, Part V: “Although the work is done and the forgiveness of sins is secured by the cross (John 19:30), it cannot come to us in any other way than through the Word.” Now Luther is not writing about the quotations of random Bible passages that mention the word “gospel”, but to be clear he writes, “Now the only way this treasure is passed along and made our very own is in the words ‘Given…and shed for you’.” This in no way denigrates the preached Word, through which the Holy Spirit works and sustains faith where and when He wills, but why would a Lutheran pastor not mention the Sacraments as they are also God’s means of grace?

“Daddy” and “Granny” talking to a youngun’ about Jesus’ resurrection is great, and the Word is efficacious when shared by clergypersons and non-clergypersons alike, but why not talk about the Church and finding Christ there as that is where He has promised to be? Why not mention Holy Baptism as entrance into the Church? As Dr. Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, Part IV: “We have, therefore, no greater jewel in body and soul. For by Baptism we are made holy and are saved (1 Corinthians 6:11). No other kind of life, no work upon earth, can do this.” Look at Pentecost for an example. Peter did not preach to the crowd to make a decision. He preached Christ and Him crucified and said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Acts 2:38) The three thousand who were added to the church that day were not added by their decision, but by their baptism. Our confidence in our salvation does not rest on what Grandma or Dad have said but on our baptisms. Again, Martin Luther, “So when our sins and conscience oppress us, we strengthen ourselves and take comfort and say, ‘Nevertheless, I am baptized. And if I am baptized, it is promised to me that I shall be saved and have eternal life, both in soul and body.’”

The audience for whom the Time of Grace message was written is not clear. With several appeals to “make up your mind”, in the initial three pages it seems that this message is written for non-Christians. Yet, on the last page, Pr. Jeske is encouraging his audience to share the Easter message with others, which could only be done by Christians. This brings in a rather curious line of reasoning that has arisen to defend parts of Lutheran sermons that tend to sound like decision theology. We have heard that when a Lutheran preacher urges his audience to make a decision, others will defend this as “preaching to sanctification”. It is assumed that this will cover the tracks that seem to lead to decision theology, which most Lutherans will still say is wrong, even if they don’t know why. Decisions CAN be made with regard to sanctification, the thinking goes, because somewhere in the Lutheran Confessions it says something about us cooperating with our own sanctification, though not our own justification.

Well, it does say something like that in The Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration: “as soon as the Holy Spirit has begun His work of regeneration and renewal in us through the Word and holy Sacraments, we can and should cooperate through His power, although still in great weakness. This cooperation does not come from our fleshly natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts that the Holy Spirit has begun in us in conversion. St. Paul clearly and eagerly encourages that ‘working together with Him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain’ (2 Corinthians 6:1). But this is to be understood in no other way than the following: the converted person does good to such an extent and as long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him. As soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from the person, he could not for a moment keep obeying God. But (if anyone would take St. Paul's words in this sense-) the converted person cooperates with the Holy Spirit the way two horses draw a wagon together-this could not be allowed in any way without damaging the divine truth.” The Confessions are pretty clear; some Lutheran preaching is not. Without qualifications in sermons or messages, perhaps it would be best for Lutherans to stay away from “decision” language to avoid giving the impression that we cooperate in our own justification or that we are able to do more in our sanctification than we can.

Another section of the magazine has several questions written by readers printed with their answers by Pr. Jeske. Half the questions have more to do with Mark Jeske than with Christ. It would be analogous to receiving an issue of Gottesdienst with a glossy four-page spread of questions from readers and answers by Rev. Dr. Eckardt. (What’s your favorite liturgical color and why? Do you prefer single malt or blended Scotch? Aged twelve or fifteen years?) Pr. Jeske’s answer to a question about “living a Christian life Monday through Saturday” is quite telling. Pr. Jeske writes, “No matter how great your study and worship on Sunday was, it is not sufficient to sustain your life for six more days.” So much for God’s grace being sufficient for us! Pr. Jeske goes on to encourage the questioner to find some time every day to read God’s Word and pray. We’re all for reading God’s Word and praying, but there’s no need to question the efficacy of God’s Word in preached Word and offered Sacrament in the Divine Service!

The focus here is not on Christ. It is on the preacher. Even in an attempt at humility, it doesn’t quite come off believably. Pr. Jeske writes in the opening letter to the magazine that he doesn’t enjoy having his picture taken. Yet, there are twelve pictures of him in the twenty pages of this edition. (Sorry, one more Gottesdienst comparison: imagine grinning pictures of all the editors and contributors next to sermons, articles, and poems, some formal in clerical garb, some maybe more casual-fishing, golfing, etc.) He is the focus of most of the publication. In an article written by Pr. Jeske he recounts meeting a young man with many physical handicaps who through great effort, made it to a special Sunday church service that featured Pr. Jeske’s choir. “That young man, who deals with lots of difficulties and physical challenges most of us will never have to face, manages to get himself 60 miles from home just so he could hear our choir and meet me. That’s humbling.” So the thrill is not in preaching Christ crucified, not that someone was brought to faith, but that someone would want to meet you? Compare that to the testimony given by another preacher, “I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him. The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”


Shanna said...

To be fair, Pastor Jeske probably didn't go to the WELS convention formally because only a certain number of pastors are allowed to be there as voting represenatives. However, he could have attended as an observer. It would be hard to know the motive w/out talking to him.

As for the purpose, I did read once off his site that ToG was started after visiting Coral Ridge (Dr. Kennedy's church) in FL. He went with a group of business men (WELS). The purpose is to make him the most recognizable face of orthodox Lutheranism, if I'm remembering the article correctly. I will have to look at it again to be sure. I will be back with a link when I find it. I think he mentioned it in his blog post (he posts a new one every Monday) regarding the death of Dr. Kennedy.

ToG is meant to be an evangelism tool.

Shanna said...

There is the blog I mentioned previously.

Angry Lutherans said...

If Pr. Jeske were proclaiming orthodox Lutheran theology, the show would be a good evangelism tool. Unfortunately, from the episodes we have seen and his material we have read, he is not.

Shanna said...

I don't disagree. I am just very careful with my words due to my husband's current position in the Lutheran church body.

Anonymous said...

I was not aware that the Scriptures prescribe a homiletical form that dictates that both Sacraments need to be mentioned and that one must recount the Passion history in every sermon. To intimate that there is is simply sinful rank legalism. The arrogance and elitism on this blog is offensive. I pray that my congregation and I are never your version of Lutheran. I will stick to the three solas and the Confessions to define my Lutheransim. ContenderJude6

Angry Lutherans said...


Oh, ContenderJude6, where to begin?

First, our author did not intimate that every sermon must contain references to both Sacraments and the entire Passion of our Lord. A very sorry straw man on your part.
Second, as I'm sure you've noticed given your familiarity with Scripture and the Lutheran Confession, those are the only sources the author used in the post you had such problems with (note especially the quote from the LC concerning the Sacrament). Third, please read the post "Tone Disclaimer" is you haven't already; this is your one free shot. If you submit any more comments that are embarrassing to yourself, we will kindly delete them for you. Fourth, you are free to not read here. It's really up to you. Fifth, we notice that you didn't take issue with anything that our author actually did write, so we must assume that you agreed with it but are just having a bad day.

Here's hoping you have a better tomorrow!