Saturday, March 24, 2012

Someone (sort of) asked a question of me as to what the third use of the law was. Here is my reply. This question was asked as a consequence of encountering Law Life and the Living God: The Third Use of the Law in Modern American Lutheranism by Scott R. Murray. My reply refers to that book.

The "third" use of the law comes from the notion of three uses of laws in the Lutheran Confessions. These are three functions that law performs. First is the coarse direction of behavior by the Government, such as rules that forbid murder. This has been called a "curb" for it performs a function similar to a curb on a street, it keeps cars on the road in a coarse sense. The second use is to show us our need for Jesus as our Savior by showing us how sinful we are. This is called a "mirror" use, as we see our own reflection in the law, we see our own failures to keep God's rules. The third use is for the Christian only in that a forgiven sinner will want to respond in thankfulness for the give of life and salvation they have received and will want to please God and this function of the law is to guide us in how to please God. This is the "guide" function of the law.

I understand the book tries to combat an idea that God's rules (law) no longer apply to us as Christians, since we are forgiven of all our sins by Christ's death on the cross. That idea has been called, among other names, "Gospel Reductionism". That means that all of Christianity gets reduced to the forgiveness of our sins and law doesn't matter any longer. Such an idea is worthy of being combatted because it is not in agreement with Scripture and is clearly an extreme. It is "gospel" without "law", if you will.

The opposite extreme has law emphasized over the gospel. The gospel is not ever offered as a solution to the law's attack. Instead the law is put forward with a notion that we are able to follow it well enough that our actions will be credited to us. In my experience, this is the extreme that I saw Pastor K-- descend to in his preaching and teaching. This was putting the law before us primarily as something we should do. The gospel was seldom offered as the cure to the problem of the law. We were taught that we could keep the law and do good works, thereby.

I believe that Pastor K-- thought I was proposing the other extreme, that the law is not applied to Christians, and thus that there is no third use of the law. I believe that is why he got me the book. I would agree with the position of the book however. But I do not agree with Pastor K--.

Peace of Christ,
Kevin Buchs

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Existence and Evil

Someone recently posted the following questions to an email list to which I subscribe. I doubt my answer is all that wonderful, yet, I thought perhaps having it published here might allow it to reach someone who needs it. With permission, I repeat the initial questions first (ok, I edited them a bit) and then two of my responses follow.

Initial Questions

Consider someone who regards existence as a curse and an evil. They say we cannot be said to be responsible for our existence. Further, as the cosmological argument for the existence of God concludes there must be a source of all existence which is God, the source of all evil is assigned to God also.

Someone with this perspective might ask why God created anything at all. Having been asked this question, I always ask what kind of answer they would find satisfactory. They admit that there is probably no acceptable answer. After all, what rationale could be offered for the creation of evil? One cannot reply that there is a new creation, a new heaven and earth, for the person can conclude that this is merely the continuation of existence, albeit of a different kind.

One could query such a person as to why they believe that existence is intrinsically evil. But it appears difficult to make much headway here. It seems we make a basic presumption that existence is good, and in particular, that it is better to exist than to not exist. If one does not share that presumption, it is not clear to me what more to say.

It is interesting, too, that this attitude regarding existence offers an unusual response to the promise of eternal life. For the person having such an attitude, what is preferred is not eternal life, but annihiliation. Nonetheless, they will say that heaven is to be preferred to hell.

Their response to the Gospel is not gratitude or relief, but instead a feeling that it was the least that God would do. After all, it is all God's fault that we exist. Since He cannot or chooses to not take back our existence, then it is the least we can expect of Him that He find a way to save us from hell.

In the end, the entire story of God's relationship with man is seen as a cruel game. He forces us into existence and then threatens us with an eternal existence, hell or heaven, the difference being determined by some strange rule imposed by Him.

My initial reply was this:

I'll take the hook on this one (seeing the bigger fish avoiding it). No, I never encountered it. I would imagine it could be held by those who are distraught enough to ponder or act upon suicidal urges while at the same time holding a view that death is the end of the existence of a person.

It is deeply wound up in philosophical thinking, but it is wound around itself. This is the case because one cannot speak of a person outside of their existence. It is a false analysis to compare existence of a person to the non-existence of a person. All we might say is: Is the world a better place with this person existing or not? You cannot speak of what might be better for the person.

As far as the origin of evil question, we Christians simply have to say we do not know. What we do know is what God has told us in His Word. The creation was perfect but it fell into sin. However, God desires for it to be perfect once again. God desires to save all people and bring them to a blessed heavenly home.

I would push the point that for the Christian, the real measure of existence is where you are going to spend eternity. The perhaps 100 years of this earthly life can be very unpleasant, but it cannot be compared to the goodness of heaven. You can reference the original argument and ask would it be better for a person to exist in heaven or not exist. Heaven will be the greatest, most-blessed possible existence. Of course that is better. However, the question is whether one will be in heaven or hell. Hell is the worst possible existence. Any trouble in this life that we might face is incomparable to the existence in hell. God created us for heaven. With that in mind, our creation, our being brought into existence was to have us experience the best possible existence.

Why must we experience this earthly life with its pains? Why not just create us in heaven? Those are questions regarding God's hidden will. We are not meant to know the answers. The only conclusion we can reach right now is that things will be the way they are. There is no sense in pondering some hypothetical case where they are different because that is not going to change things.

Most people today are heavily focused on this life. I don't think that is where our attention is directed as Christians. We are to focus on what is beyond the resurrection. We are to lose this life. Live as citizens of heaven. Pursue eternal life.

It sounds like the person sharing the view you cited is depressed and curved in on himself. Woe is me for my life is so terrible. Why me? Depression has that way of locking one's attention inward. One of the best ways of breaking out is to direct the focus to other people. Help other people so that their earthly lives may be a bit better. Serve those who are in worse condition.

Finally, I will say that this line of thinking suggests rationalism has reigned in this person's thinking and led to one of the conclusions you can reach. It only goes to show the faulty nature of human reason. It can be held in such regard that it is considered the authority. If I can think of something, then it must be so. I would press the fact that our sinful natures and satan have a hold of our rationality. We are led to think things that are destructive and contrary to God's will. Instead, we need to focus on how things are, rather than imagine what else they could possibly be. Just because this person can imagine two states: existence and non-existence, does not mean he can choose between them. The reality must be addressed: heaven or hell? God gives us heaven through Christ. Would you rather choose hell? If you think this life is pitiful, why choose something worse that will last forever?

My additional reply

It is hard for me to think about how to respond to the non-Christian on these topics without just wanting to say: believe on Jesus who will save you from all trial and pain.

I wonder if, for this individual, one might chip away at the attitude of having a cruel existence. Perhaps both by considering how it could be worse but also considering what are some of the blessings of this life. Demonstrate a simple gratitude around this individual.

In addition, the notion that we humans can interpret the big picture is presumptive. Are we really able to look at things and make the judgment that our existence is cruel? With only our limited perspective, is it really accurate? Is a life always and only miserable? It is at best an over-generalization. It is a humanistic assumption that should be brought down to humility and recognition of our limited perspective.

Lastly, there is the "just consider it" approach. Certainly one can hold the attitude that God is cruel to me in all things or God doesn't exist. However, what if you just spend time considering the Christian answer. Can this individual come to a point where he really understands the Christian answer and can see that it is self-consistent? Can he come to understand that if one is a Christian, then there is a completely different answer which holds a pleasant future. In other words, can he say: "I can see the Christian view and if a person holds that view to be true, then I see that he would not have the same view about this life and existence, including eternal life." Now, I wonder if it will work to engage a variant on Pascal's wager: hold the view that existence is cruel and live a life in misery or hold a Christian view and live in hope. Might as well hold the latter.

Can it be suggested, also, that there is an inkling of the existence of something beyond us in most people? Some sense of the transcendent. Some thought that this life may not define all there is. I recall my past period of being an anti-Christian where I had to actively suppress such thinking. I'm not exactly sure where to take this, but perhaps it is the start of a line of discussion.

Of course, I don't think that you will be able to "talk" this person into becoming a Christian. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. However, some of these approaches may be of help in breaking down the rejecting spirit.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Thoughts while writing a sermon

Today is my typical sermon writing day. It has been taking me longer
and longer to do it, it seems. As an example, last weekend I worked
on it all day Saturday and then Sunday morning for 3 hours (and even
into the service some!).

I start my sermon writing by browsing through the readings assigned in
the revised One-Year Lectionary adopted by our Hymnal (Lutheran
Service Book). A lectionary is simply a list of Scripture lessons
assigned for each Sunday and Holy Days in the Church Year Calendar.
For example, tomorrow is the 20th Sunday After Trinity. The Hymnal
has a One-Year and a Three-Year lectionary. The Three-Year one goes
three years before it is repeated, but a Ony-Year repeats every year.
The One-Year Lectionary is strongly related to what is called the
Historic Lectionary. The roots of the Historic Lectionary go back to
prior to 600 AD. I love being connected to history like that. Just
think, in churches 1400 years ago, they were reading the same

The Three Year Lectionary came out of the reform work begun amongst
the Roman Catholics as part of Vatican II in 1962. What they
developed reflected selections that slanted toward Roman Catholic
theology which teaches that our obedience to God's law is a
requirement in order to be saved. Lutherans and other evangelical
church bodies made adjustments in the lectionary of the Roman
Catholics to provide a more balanced selection that did not surpress
the Good News that Jesus Christ is the one who freed us from the
obligations of God's law in order to be saved. The Good News, or in
Greek, evangel, is what Lutherans and other evangelicals restored in
the Reformation. Now, I use the word "evangelical" starting with a
lower case "e" to refer to the historic meaning of that word, coming
out of the time of the Reformation. Only in recent decades has the
word "Evangelical" been co-opted by some groups who are, quite often,
not very evangelical.

The One-Year Lectionary used by Lutheran Service Book is a slight
revision of the Historic Lectionary. It too has a bit more balance
than the Historic Lectionary, but most of the time it is identical.

This Lectionary then determines the lessons for a Sunday: Old
Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel. For this week they are Isaiah
55:1-9, Psalm 27, Ephesians 5:15-21 and Matthew 22:1-14.

Some pastors will submissively preach sermons from the lessons read at
a given service. That is historically what was done but that practice
has diminished over, perhaps, the last century. I choose to submit to
the lectionary. I believe the principle is important: I am not
choosing the sermon text, it is chosen for me. Preaching should be
about God's Word and not about me. So, one way to take me out of the
picture is to have the lessons chosen for me.

You will probably notice that there is still some choice, among the
four lessons. I further discipline myself to choose one of the four
without repetition over a four-year cycle. Since Real Lutheran
Fellowship started in 2007, I am now in the fourth year of my cycle.
I have a choice of four lessons the first year, then three the second
year, then two and this year the lessons are the one remaining. This
Sunday, the lesson left is Psalm 27.

Generally, the Psalms are harder to preach on. In fact, most pastors
will not preach on them. How many sermons have you heard based on the
Psalms? How many can you find on the Internet? One reason that the
Psalms are difficult is that they are almost exclusively examples of
Hebrew Poetry. Like English poetry, Hebrew poetry follows a structure
imposed by the words used. English poetry may rhyme, so the structure
is the words have a similar sound. Also, English poetry may have a
fixed number of syllables or a pattern of them. Shakespeare's Sonnets
have a structure of 14 lines with each line having 10 syllables.
There is, however, even more structure to a sonnet than just what I
mentioned. Here is an example of the opening of Shakespeare's Sonnet

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory...

Hebrew poetry is less likely to be about rhyming than English poetry
but it is often about the number of syllables. You will, of course,
notice none of this in an English translation.

One of the consequences of poetry's demands on structure is that the
wording might not be as complete as regular spoken language. There
are words missing. Again, you will never see this in English
translations. That may be considered a flaw in such translations.
The missing words are supplied, making certain assumptions about the
meaning. Perhaps God would rather we appreciate intentional ambiguity
in His Word.

In my sermon preparation, I will read through all the lessons and then
consult my list of those I have recently preached upon so that I might
make a choice on which one to preach on this Sunday. Reading the
other lessons will reveal some common themes or other possible
interactions among the lessons. Once I have a lesson picked out I
will work on translating it. This may take a large part of the day
even with some awesome tools that I use. There are many times I don't
buy so easily into assumptions that the writers of reference works may
make. With 14 verses in this Psalm, I will predict this will take
a longer amount of time and this is even more so to be predicted
because it is a Psalm.

It is a good day of preparation when I can avoid getting distracted
from translation. Obviously I have gotten distracted by writing this
email at this point, but now I think I'll get on to translation.
Perhaps I'll have an example or two to share when I get done. Time
me, it is now 8:03 AM.

Ok, it is 5:27 PM and I've finished translating. Yes I got distracted
by several things. This Psalm was quite a bit less challenging than
others I've worked with. Here is a good example of a poetic statement
with many words not given, verse 13:

Unless I trusted in to see the good things of Yahweh in the land
of the living

I added the extra space where I think words need to go to get specific
meaning out of it. Yahweh, by the way, is the proper name of God. It
often gets translated as "The LORD" where "LORD" is written in small
capital letters. The idea that we should not really use God's name
came from the Jews, specifically the Pharisees, who thought if the
never used God's name then they would never use it in vain. For a
while, the name was translated as Jehovah. Actually, it comes out of
a special code in the manuscripts of the Old Testament where the
consonants of one word (Yahweh) were combined with the vowels of
another word (Lord). That was part of the Pharisees tradition to
change those vowels so that when they read it they would not say the
name of God. When you undo the code, you get Yahweh.

Well, you will have to check tomorrow for the
sermon to see how it turns out.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Aspect of Verbs in Koine Greek

Professor James Voelz was my teacher and author of Fundamental Greek Grammar (Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1993). Professor Voelz developed an innovative way of understanding aspect in Biblical Greek. This is particularly demonstrated with the imperfect tense. Most textbooks just say that imperfects are ongoing action and leave it at that. Dr. Voelz recognized through his Ph.D. work in Luke that this understanding does not fit all imperfects. He developed the additional term aspect to sort of supplement tense in categorizing verbs.

What is often called present tense he refers to as focus-on-connection, (FoC) that is, it conveys a meaning that emphasizes the link between the subject and the action that is referred to by the verb. Statements like, "I leave the check" are conveying a sense that I is connected to the action (leaving). Focus-on-connection is one type of aspect.

Another major type of aspect is focus-on-action (FoA). This aspect is more worried about the fact that the action is/was done than who did it. An example sentence would be "I see you."

As present tense is FoC, so aorist is FoA. Aorist is past time so it is focusing on the action that has been completed. It is the action that is important. Now, imperfect is FoC and is sort of a past time correspondent to present.

Professor Voelz lists 6 different connections conveyed by an imperfect. Context must help you resolve between these:
  1. Continuous, e.g. "I was loosing."
  2. Habitual, e.g. "I used to loose."
  3. Inceptive (beginning), e.g. "I began to loose."
  4. Conatative (attempting), e.g. "I tried to loose."
  5. Repetitive, e.g. "I repeatedly loosed."
  6. Emphatic, e.g. "I did loose."
I have found this understanding of the imperfect has been very helpful. Since I got no Google hits on this topic, I decided it was time for me to do something. For further information, see Prof. Voelz' textbook and other books and papers by him. You may also find some discussion of this by Professor Jeffrey Gibbs; he refers to it as syntactical sugar.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Another prime example of Lutheranism being misunderstood

This St. Paul Pioneer Press article covers a Minneapolis congregation voting to split with the ELCA over their gay resolution recently passed. Here is my email to the writer:


I am writing about your recent Pioneer Press article entitled "Minneapolis church splits with ELCA over gays". It appears from the article that you are not fully understanding Lutheranism in contrast to the popular ideas dominant in American Christianity.

You wrote: "...Wells and other an emphasis on the law part, saying that their interpretation of Scripture holds that God views homosexuality as a sin. The resolution's proponents believe the emphasis should be on the gospel aspect. They generally believe that all humans have sinned and that 'self-righteousness is no longer possible,' said Johnson. That's a basic idea in theology -- God saves us; we do not." This has created a few false dichotomies. What Lutherans are committed to is the teaching that the things that we do and fail to do in our lives do not determine whether we are saved or not. We are and never were able to make ourselves righteous. The law of God shows us that we fail at that and therefore do not deserve to be saved. On the other hand, the gospel tells us what God has done for us, namely that Jesus died to take away our sins. Surely all people are sinners and for those who do not reject it, they have the free gift of salvation. These issues are not at dispute here. There is another question of how God would like us to live our lives. We know we are saved even though we sin. How can we live our lives in thankfulness for being saved? That is what God also tells us in the law. We cannot ever make ourselves good enough" by trying to live according to God's law and so we still depend on Christ's sacrifice. The law has these two roles of showing us our sins and guiding us in life. The gospel is always there telling us we are saved by Jesus sacrifice on the cross. These things are really not at dispute in this issue over gay acceptance. The primary issue is whether God's Word says that homosexual behavior is sinful. The variation is in which parts of the Bible are considered God's Word. God's Word is unchangable as God is, so, put very simply, one must deny that certain portions of the Bible are God's Word. The proponents of the resolution take the position that there is content of the Bible that consist of human statements that are limited to ancient cultures and do not apply today. They would not consider that to be God's Word.

I hopefully have explained myself well here. I would be happy to clarify further or otherwise reply if you wish. In the best of worlds, I would hope for an article to correct some of these misunderstandings of Lutheranism.

- Kevin Buchs; Pastor, Rochester, MN

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What are the teachings of Real Lutheran Fellowship?

I had someone who is a member or former member of Ascension Lutheran Church ask me about the teachings of Real Lutheran Fellowship, the congregation I have been called to serve. Here is my reply:

I'm sure you are aware that I ended my membership at Ascension a couple of years ago. The most important reason for doing so is that I felt that the teaching and preaching on Law and Gospel, their distinction and application, were impure and harmful. In our congregation, we would have teachings that are very familiar to WELS and Missouri Synod members of decades ago (but may be strange today). As indicated above, we would make these points clear in teaching and preaching:

1) God's law shows that we are sinners who cannot make ourselves better or overcome our sins. We deserve hell.

2) Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is able to save us from all sins and that is the only way to eternal life. Generally our teaching and preaching should end at this point, leaving us in the Gospel.

3) God wants us to live according to His law, but we will always fall short. Our works are as useless as filthy rags without the blood of Christ to cleanse them. Therefore, we, as Christians, do no do "good" works in and of ourselves but Christ must cleanse all we do.

Do feel free to shoot me back other questions you have. I'm happy to talk in person too. I'd also recommend our website,, but you probably already found that.