Monthly Archives: July 2014

Tertius Usus Legis: Lutheran and Reformed Differences

When in the Lutheran Church…the one-sided antinomian movement, which wanted to have the preaching of the law banned from the church as not at all applying to Christians and being harmful to true faith, was brought back onto the right track by Luther, the doctrinal designation of a threefold use of the law, as the Formula of Concord has it, appeared: usus politicus [the curb function], usus elenchticus or paedeuticus [the mirror function] and usus normativus [the guide function]. The last, also called usus tertius, concerns believing regenerated Christians. The law contains the norm according to which believing Christians are to regulate their lives.

In general, the Reformed teach the same. They too had to combat various types of antinomianism which developed in their midst, even though it was derived in part from other sources. When they talk about the enduring authority of the law, however, they mean something different from what Lutherans mean. If we take a closer look at how Lutherans think of this enduring authority, then it cannot consist in this that the law maintains its compelling and demanding authority over believers. For just as Christ redeemed us from the curse, so he also redeemed us from the compelling demands of the law in that he did everything which the law demands of us. Consequently, the believer as such consciously knows that by virtue of his justification he has been liberated from both aspects of the law, from its curse (maledictio) and its coercion (coactio).

It is therefore completely in keeping with the Lutheran point of view when [F.A.] Philippi in his book about the active obedience of Christ says that the one who has been justified is always conscious of freedom from both the punishment and the demands of the law, from the curse and the coercion of the law.This is the same as saying that both forgiveness of sins and justification have been equally granted to him. The believer, as a person who has been justified, is no longer under the law. The law does not have to urge him on to anything anymore; it has nothing to demand of him anymore because its demands have been fulfilled by Christ. What motivates the Christian is love, which has its origin in faith and is the fruition of that faith, in short, the Holy Spirit. Faith, which by the grace of God is saturated with love, compels the believer of himself to do that which is good.

If, however, the law is still to be a norm for him to which he knows he is subject, to the observance of which he knows he is obligated, to whose command he knows he is bound, then this can happen only in so far as he has yet another side than that according to which he possesses the conviction of his justification, and in faith through the Holy Spirit also possesses the immanent principle of conduct well-pleasing to God. That is, the law applies as law only to the Old Man, who is still always present, to the sinful part of the believer, which has not yet been overcome and assimilated by the Spirit.

Gerhard expresses this as follows:

“The regenerate Christian, in so far as he is a Christian and regenerated, needs no law, namely, that drives and compels him, because he does good works on his own initiative. Since, however, he is not yet completely regenerated but is still partly under the old domination of the flesh, his stubborn flesh must be compelled by commands and threats and subjected to the rule of the spirit.”

Luther had already made essentially this same point against Agricola. So this teritus usus legis or normativus is very closely related to the paideuticus in that it has reference only to sin, to its subjection and elimination. Only sin, which is still continually present, makes such a positive norm necessary.

Reformed doctrine too is acquainted with this purposely negative use of the law. It likewise had reason to remind the antinomians that the believer and regenerate Christian is not yet perfect or free from everything sinful. But this significance of the law and the believer’s need for it is still not the complete statement of Reformed doctrine. It is merely the subordinate aspect of it. The law has a positive significance for the regenerate person as such, not just a negative one, in so far as he still has a side that has not yet been renewed. It must tell him what he as a believer and regenerate person must do. It must prescribe God’s will to him and encourage him to carry it out. Accordingly, the justified and regenerated person as such needs the law, and for this reason that, as we have seen before, he has to do good works and in doing the same has to work out his salvation.

The law is the rule of good works, as [Benedict] Pictet teaches:

[To be sure, the law] no longer has that use which it would have had in the state of innocence, where it would have been the means to obtain eternal life [this, by the way, is also a specifically Reformed idea of which the Scriptures say not a word— August Pieper], also with reference to justification. For believers are no longer under the curse of the law, but the law is not abolished; it is always the most perfect rule for morals. Christ and the apostles recommend the law, and without sanctification no one will see the face of God.

The Geneva Catechism states: “Why then are there so many admonitions, commands and exhortations, which both the prophets and apostles employ everywhere? They are nothing else than expositions of the law, which lead us to obey the law rather than away from it.” Lutherans speak here not of law (lex) but of [evangelical] admonition (mandatum), etc. Pictet says, “Christ has redeemed us from the yoke of the curse of the law but not from the necessity of rendering obedience to God.” It belongs to the kingly office of Christ to urge his people according to God’s eternal law. An abrogation of the moral law is not possible because “it is based for the most part on the natural justice of God. Other laws are based on the positive justice of God, which depends on the mere will of God.” [Anton] Hulsius too teaches similarly: “Nevertheless, while the use of the law does not cease, namely, that through it prior to faith the spirit of servitude might produce the beginnings of conversion, just as after faith, when the spirit of servitude has already been changed into the spirit of adoption, the same law is a mirror of gratitude for the liberation through Christ.” And [Peter van] Mastricht says, “The chief norm of obedience is the divine law” as “a prescription of duty under the threat of punishment for the scorner.” The obedience is “that part of spiritual life by which the Christian is inclined to carry out the will of God, with subjection through faith, to the glory of God.” Obedience has its origin “in the regenerating, converting and sanctifying grace of God, as well as in faith.”

It could not be expressed more definitely than this, namely, that the law applies to the believer as such, while Lutherans declare that the believer is free from the coercion (coactio) and threat (comminatio) of the law in that he as a believer voluntarily (sua sponte) does what is Godpleasing. Consequently, he does not need the external prod of a demanding law standing over him. Only because the believer as he is in this life (in concreto) is also something else besides a believer does the law still also apply to him to convict him of sin. The Reformed, on the other hand, let law apply to the believer because and in so far as he is a believer. For God wants nothing from us except that we follow the law, as the Geneva Catechism states; and because we can never follow it completely, it keeps pride down by means of its constant condemnations. “Finally, the law serves them as a curb by which they are kept in the fear of God.”

– Matthias (Max) Schneckenburger, “Vergleichende Darstellung des lutherischen und reformierten Lehrbegriffs” (A Comparative Presentation of the Lutheran and Reformed Concept of Doctrine), quoted in “The Difference Between The Reformed And The Lutheran Interpretation Of The So-Called Third Use Of The Law” by August Pieper

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Sanctification, Grace, and The Pattern of Doctrine

[Romans 6:11-23] is about God’s work of sanctification in believers’ lives – also now – as he causes his church to “grow the growth of God” (Col 2:19). The section is about sanctifying and the key words in it are not the imperatives but the great statements which refer to God’s work:

“You are not under Law but rather under grace” (6:14).
You were delivered to a pattern of doctrine (6:17).
You have been set free (6:18, 22).
“The gracious gift of God is eternal life” (6:23).

Paul’s words about sanctifying do not lay on Christians a post-Gospel dose of (guilt-producing!) Law. “Sanctifyingis Gospel talk. The change of lordship transfers sinful man out of that vicious cycle in which he is trapped when trying to be right with God by doing works of Law.

The reign of grace is none other than βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ, the kingdom of God. The Savior who calls out “Come unto me, ye weary” (Mt 11:28) has given rest: grace, a gift. Grace shines down from heaven in Jesus Christ, and those who are baptized are justified, standing in it (Rom 5:1), walking under it (6:14). It warms, releases, vitalizes them.

It is the prodigal son who is “under grace.” Will his brother, in whom reigns opinio legis, repent and come into the joy of grace (Lk 15:11-32)? The father who is waiting for his sons is giving a feast in the household where grace reigns; reckoning everything in the way of Law is what keeps one from being joined to that household and its eternal joy.

But those who are under grace are not under Law. They spring up, newly alive, and should never again let opinio legis cause them to doubt the good standing (for Christ’s sake) in God’s sight. Under grace, they are delivered into the power and care of the Gospel, the pattern of sound doctrine. This doctrine is not a moral code, but the word of grace, the ministry of the Gospel, the work of Christ (through his representatives) to guard the Christian and keep him in the one true faith – in the Christian church, where Christ richly and daily forgives sins (sanctifies continually) and at the last will raise the dead and give to believers in Christ eternal life. Through the doctrine, through the Gospel, through the ministry which is the continuation of Christ’s ministry, God is sanctifying. And so the Christian person, under grace, kept in the faith, is freed – to serve (Rom 6:18) and to rejoice (Rom 5:11).

Such is the happy life of the one who lets himself be made a slave of the God who justifies the ungodly and graciously gives the gift of eternal life (Rom 6:23).

– Jonathan F. Grothe, The Justification of the Ungodly, Volume 1, pages 354-355

Trinity 6 – Romans 6:3-11

Please open the Service Book to page 325. Let’s confess what the Small Catechism says about Baptism.

We are baptized. Notice the present tense compared to the past tense, “I was baptized.” Baptism is a rich and powerful Gift. It works forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives everlasting salvation. Baptism does these things because God’s Word, the Word of command and promise, is in and with the water. Through baptism, God pours out His Holy Spirit over us. The Holy Spirit works faith that apprehends what God offers us, as we confessed a bit ago when we said that portion of Titus chapter three.

Baptism eliminates any notion that you did something for your salvation. Conversion is 100 percent God’s work on you. This includes baptism. Sadly, some Christians misunderstand Baptism and think that because you still sin, baptism is of no real effect for a Christian. It leaves no room for your own merit or work. This is why Paul says at the beginning of chapter six: Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Then comes today’s Epistle, where Paul proves that Christians cannot and will not live in sin because we are baptized.

Saint Paul describes baptism as a death, burial, and resurrection in Jesus Christ. This is no mere metaphor. This is reality. In baptism, we have been dead and buried with Christ for sin. Jesus’ death includes His full suffering in body and soul. Jesus is dead to sin. His death is our redemption, our satisfaction of sin, our payment, our atonement, our reconciliation with God. Hebrews chapter ten says, For by a single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. His death frees us from the guilt and punishment of sin, as well as from its reign, power, force, and its slavery. Again, this is not a possibility that is made certain by your doing something. This is reality because of the Word and promise with baptismal water.

Jesus’ burial is our burial. His burial is proof that He truly paid the uttermost wages of sin. Sin is entirely done away with by Him. All sin, all its power, lies impotent in His grave. He has overcome sin for us.

Because Jesus died and was buried, in baptism we have our own death and burial. Yes, we will have a temporal death and temporal burial, because the wages of sin is death. You shall die. Yet you die not when you die. You are a companion of Christ in death and the grave. You have been made a partaker of the blessing, the fruit, the power and the effect of His death and burial. Your baptism is a bath in the death of Jesus Christ. Because of this precious bath, God sees nothing in you except Christ’s death. The grave does you no harm because Christ’s death makes your death and burial a mere nap.

Because you are dead to sin, sin is wiped out for us in Christ. You are free from sin, from its guilt and punishment, from its power and dominion, from its spell and compulsion. Paul continues in Romans chapter six: We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him.

To live in sin, to serve sin, would be a contradiction in itself. It would be a denial of our baptism, wiping out what God has done to us through baptism. When a servant dies, he ceases to obey and to serve his master. So it is with baptism. You have died to sin in Christ. You no longer obey and serve sin. The nature and benefit of baptism makes slavery to sin impossible. When Satan, when false teachers try to contradict the clear words of Scripture and make you think that your baptism is nothing unless there is something that you did tied to it, then laugh in their faces. You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. When you cling to these words, then every day you bring sin to the cross and grave and leave it there. You no longer serve sin. It no longer rules over you.

In baptism, we have been put with Christ into a new life for God. Note the tense of the verb: have been put. This is not your own doing. You are a partaker of the blessing of the fruits and power of the resurrection. We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. We shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.

Not only have we been justified from our sins, we have also been put with Him into a new, spiritual, divine life. Renewal follows rebirth. Sonship with Jesus Christ brings a childlike faith, and with it a way of life in holy love and fear. You don’t keep a record of how many good works you are supposed to be doing. You do them. They happen. You don’t even realize them. In fact, the minute you start thinking about them, counting them, and relying on them, they are no longer good works. You return to slavery.

Saint Paul talks in Romans chapter seven about this struggle. You’ll have to read it for yourself. The Old Adam is still with us this side of eternity. He stirs sins and evil desires within us. He wants to be number one. He must be drowned, crucified, buried by daily contrition and repentance every day. The New Man then rises from the ashes of repentance. The saving work of God, begun in us through baptism, continues every day in death to sin and resurrection to new life.

This happens when we believe and remember that we are raised with Christ in baptism. Sin is no longer our master, Jesus Christ is our Master. We live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him. We believe what God has done to us in baptism is not merely a symbol or a sign, but a death, burial, and resurrection. Believing what He has done for us brings growing love toward God and our fellow man. The New Man gains strength by God’s grace. The Old Adam diminishes.

You are baptized. You have died and been buried with Christ. You have risen from the grave with Him, out of the watery grave of baptism, to live a new life with Him and in Him. Rejoice, dear baptized child of God! You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus!

Trinity 5 – Luke 5:1-11

King David sings in Psalm 119, Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. God’s Word is the standard for all doctrine and life. The light shines through all situations and relationships. Yet we turn off that light when it is not convenient for us, or especially when it does not make sense. Take Peter, for example. You’re fishing all night and didn’t catch a thing. Then Jesus, in your boat, tells you how to fish. His instructions, Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch, goes against everything you have been taught about fishing. You do it, perhaps thinking you will show Jesus to be a fool. When the nets come in bursting with fish, who then is the fool?

Everyone has their station in life. The angels are ministering spirits, stars shine, and the earth bears fruit. Man works. God put man in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it. God also pushed man out of the Garden and made him work the ground for life. There is never enough work, and there is always enough work. Saint Paul says, If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. Unless your name is Rockefeller or Trump, you have to work for a living. Even when you are retired, you still work. My father has been retired for almost twenty years and I dare say he is busier now than he was when he managed a lumberyard.

Peter heard God’s Word and, reluctantly it seems, followed it. That was the motivation behind why he followed Jesus’ command to catch fish. Jesus said it. Peter did it. The proof is in the pudding, or, rather, the nets. Once the nets came in, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink.

No wonder Simon Peter falls as Jesus’ knees and says, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. Simon did not trust Christ to do what He said it would do. We are like Simon Peter as well. We’re always looking for an angle, some sort of trick or tip to get what we want. Pastors are guilty of this all the time. We sulk when pews remain empty for a long time. We wish we could grab the ear of those who don’t come to church on a regular basis and drag them here. The Gifts Christ gives His Church are right here before us, and yet so many don’t think a thing about them.

The 17th century English poet George Herbert wrote a poem called “The Collar”. It begins, “I struck the board and cried, ‘No more; I will abroad!'” Herbert was an Anglican priest. The poem features a pastor who is ready to call it quits. He’d rather be footloose and fancy free. Once things were great in the church. Now things aren’t what they used to be. It’s better to do something else than preach the Word. Yet there’s a twist in the last four lines. “But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild/At every word,/Methought I heard one calling, Child!/And I replied, My Lord.”

Simon Peter’s Child moment is when he falls at Jesus’ knees and begs Him to leave the boat. You’ve probably had a Child moment too. The moment when you are ready to chuck it all and hit the road. Then comes something like that still small voice Elijah heard in today’s Old Testament reading. You come to your senses and stay at your post. If things don’t prosper or go your way, God knows why. If your calling thrives, then it pleases both God and you.

Success in life does not depend on you. Jesus could have had the fish jump into the boat. Wouldn’t that have been a surprise to the fishermen! Nevertheless, He instead calls them to go to work at the height of the day and cast their nets. The blessing at work came from Jesus alone. Success and blessing in life, in work, depends on God alone. When He closes His hand, we can acquire nothing. All success and blessings in life belong to God alone. He gives all good gifts. He is the source of all blessings. Solomon says in Proverbs, The blessing of the LORD makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it.

All success and blessings in life have their source in the Son of God, Who wins by losing. He loses His life. You receive forgiveness. He rises from the dead. You receive resurrection. All sin goes on Him. All perfect righteousness goes on you. This is so because God’s Word says it will be this way.

Just as Jesus tells Simon to cast His net to catch fish, even when common sense says this is a fool’s errand, the Lord God says He will catch you in His net of the Word. When He catches you, He washes you clean of sin and death in Baptism. Your identity in caught up in Him. He keeps you steadfast in the one true faith through preaching and the Supper. Where the marks of the Church are: Preaching, Baptism, Absolution, Communion, there is the success that so many Christians want to find. The Kingdom of God is in the neglected things of the world. No one would dare think a pulpit, a font, or an altar would be the places to find the living God. Yet here He is, ready to catch, watch, and feed His creation. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

The Collar

Dr. Ed Veith reignited a spark to read George Herbert. Here’s a poem that Dr. Veith recited and spoke about this week at the CCLE conference in St. Louis, MO. This poem is good for pastors and people to read and think about, especially in difficult times.

The Collar

I struck the board, and cried, “No more;
                         I will abroad!
What? shall I ever sigh and pine?
My lines and life are free, free as the road,
Loose as the wind, as large as store.
          Shall I be still in suit?
Have I no harvest but a thorn
To let me blood, and not restore
What I have lost with cordial fruit?
          Sure there was wine
Before my sighs did dry it; there was corn
    Before my tears did drown it.
      Is the year only lost to me?
          Have I no bays to crown it,
No flowers, no garlands gay? All blasted?
                  All wasted?
Not so, my heart; but there is fruit,
            And thou hast hands.
Recover all thy sigh-blown age
On double pleasures: leave thy cold dispute
Of what is fit and not. Forsake thy cage,
             Thy rope of sands,
Which petty thoughts have made, and made to thee
Good cable, to enforce and draw,
          And be thy law,
While thou didst wink and wouldst not see.
          Away! take heed;
          I will abroad.
Call in thy death’s-head there; tie up thy fears;
          He that forbears
         To suit and serve his need
          Deserves his load.”
But as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
          At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
          And I replied My Lord.

Trinity 4 – Luke 6:36-42 (A Birdian Bonanza of Law and Gospel, Mostly Gospel)

Mercy looks like Joseph. Joseph was hated by his brothers, stripped of his robe, cast into a pit, sold into slavery, and – because he wouldn’t sleep with another man’s wife – locked in an Egyptian dungeon. After many years, Joseph looked at his brothers as the second-most powerful man in Egypt. He was able to do anything he wanted to them. He could take his revenge, but he pardoned them, shed tears of joy, and embraced them as long-lost family.

Mercy looks like King David, hunted and hounded by his father-in-law, King Saul, over every hill and valley of Israel; playing the harp to soothe Saul’s suffering and to be repaid by having a spear hurled at you; to have both foreigner and countryman betray you because of the king. David was so close to Saul to be able to cut off a corner of his garment with his knife, but held back the blade from his flesh. David stood over Saul while he slept in his camp, able to pin him to the ground with his own spear, ready to do away with Saul, yet pardoned him, spared him, and even rebuked others who told him to take revenge.

Joseph and David were merciful, but their mercy was not a perfect mercy compared to the mercy Jesus preaches in Luke chapter six. He says, be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. The mercy Jesus preaches is not like Joseph or David, but like God, your Father is merciful. God’s mercy looks like embracing and kissing your beloved children, only to have them shove you away and spit in your face. It looks like healing the sick, only to have them mock your prescriptions. It looks like feeding the starving and to have them complain that this food isn’t tasty enough. God’s mercy looks like clothing the naked while they bellyache about you not giving them Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, or Gucci.

God’s mercy is opening your hands to a world and offering them the very best you can give, and to have them pierce those hands with nails, raise you in the air, and watch with laughter and smiles as you slowly bleed to death. Enduring all this in love, embracing this world with open arms and open eyes, doing it all without complaint, prompted solely by love – that is mercy. That is perfect mercy. There is nothing greater than this mercy.

Jesus says, be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. You can’t. You love yourself too much. You think you have to defend your honor. You think you have to protect your future. You think people will take advantage of you. You think only of yourself. While you expect others to be kind to you, to be understanding of your shortcoming, and to be thankful when you do something for them, you don’t require these same things of yourself. You are merciful…to yourself.

Repentance of this mercy sounds like, “I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most.” This is the truth. Ugly, yes. Painful, certainly. Nevertheless, it is true.

You are far from showing mercy as God demands. What is more is that God is still merciful to you. It is in response to your very lack of mercy that leads Him to be superabundantly merciful to you. Jesus, the New and Greater David, pardons you who are like King Saul. Jesus, our New and Greater Joseph, pardons you who are like Joseph’s brothers. For the joy set before Him, Jesus endures being stripped of His skin by whips and cast into the pit of the tomb. He does this in order that He might go to prepare a place for you at the right hand of the Father. Your sin is no match for Christ’s mercy. No matter how hot and high the flames of your sin rise, His fountain of grace contains more than enough water to douse the fire.

God’s love is nothing like your love. God’s love does not seek the loveable, the likeable, and the one who will love Him back. God loves you, as it were, even before He finds you, even before He created you, from the very foundation of the world. His love creates you, forms you in your mother’s womb, re-creates you in the womb of the church, and continues to love you even when you are mean, spiteful, and unmerciful.

Men in search of a wife look for a woman who is attractive, who will love them back. Not God. He finds an ugly, deformed, disease-infested prostitute whose life is littered with impurity, infidelity, and every manner of wickedness. God makes this woman His bride. He washes her clean of every filth, forgives her past, clothes her in His own righteousness, and pronounces her beautiful. You are the woman. You are the bride. God does this for you.

Don’t ask why. Just say Amen. For what else can one say to the love of God except Amen. Yes, yes, it shall be so. God takes the planks in your eyes and the specks in the eyes of your neighbor and attaches them to the bloody wood of His cross. They are gone, forgiven. Your failures, your infidelities, your greed, and your selfishness – they melt like ice in the heat of your Father’s compassion. You are clean and pure. You are beloved of God. Nothing and no one means more to Him than you. Nothing and no one can change that. Jesus is judged. You are acquitted. Jesus is condemned. You are justified.

The Grain that came down from heaven in good measure was pressed down by your sins and shaken together in His Passion. This Grain runs over into your lap, or, rather, your mouth, as the Grain that has become Bread and the Bread that has become Body, that you might be filled the very flesh of God.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Blessed are you, for your refuge is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is merciful – perfectly, eternally, and superabundantly merciful to you.

Trinity 3 – Luke 15:1-32 (A Cwirla-esque Sermon)

The parable of the lost son is a parable of repentance and rejoicing. Jesus told this parable to the people who were grumbling about the company He kept. He had the audacity to sit at table with “sinners,” the losers, the riff-raff, and tax collectors. Not the people you see in the synagogue or in the temple, except perhaps lurking in the dark corners in back unable to lift their eyes to heaven. Not the respectable pillars of the community, religious leaders, or the moral spokesmen. He dined with sinners: dirty, despicable sinners. The religious hated Him for it.

He told them a parable. Three parables, actually – a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. The first two set up the third. In the parable of the lost sheep, a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to seek and save one lost sheep, and upon return there is rejoicing and a party. A woman loses a coin and turns the whole house upside down looking for it, and when she finds it, there is rejoicing and a party. The pattern is set. Something is lost, the lost is sought, found and returned, and there is rejoicing and a party.

A man had two sons. The younger son couldn’t wait for his father to die. He said, Father, give me the share of the property that’s coming to me. In other words, “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive, and since you seem in pretty good shape and not ready to check out any time soon, just sign over the inheritance check now and let me hit the road.” In short, “Dad, drop dead.” And the father did. He signed over the inheritance, gave the farm to the older brother, and kicked back into retirement.

It didn’t take the young son more than a few days to pack his things and head off to a far country, far away from his father, his brother, and his home. Far from home and family and community, the young man did what so many young men do. He wasted his inheritance. We don’t know how. Reckless living, it says. No details provided. Wine? Women? Gambling? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. No money. Inheritance gone. That’s all that matters.

To make matters worse, a famine broke out in the far country. Problems always pile up, don’t they? You lose your job, the kids get sick, and the car breaks down. The young man had no money, no food, he’s broke and homeless. He gets a job slopping hogs, which is about as rock bottom as it gets for a Jewish boy. Pigs were unclean, remember. And you know you’ve hit bottom when pig food starts to look good. But even that was not available.

Hungry, broke, lost, smelling like pigs, he came to himself. “My father’s hired servants are better off than this. They have food, a roof over their heads. I’m going to go home to my father and say, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as a hired hand.'” And off he went back home.

He probably rehearsed his little speech on the road. Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…. He probably wondered if his father accept him? Or would he turn his back on his son? There were no guarantees on this young man’s road of repentance. No assurances that his plan would meet with success. He just went to the only place he knew: Home.

That’s what repentance is. Returning home, where you belong. You’ve been away in a far country. You stink. You’re broke. You’re hungry. You’re alone. You want to be home again. In your Father’s house, where you belong.

When he was still far off, a little speck on the horizon, his father saw him. He’d been watching, looking down that road every day for his son. He recognized his walk. He had compassion. He ran down the road – something no respectable middle eastern father would have done – and ran up to him, this boy stinking of pigs, and he embraced him and kissed his filthy cheeks. And the boy can barely get his little speech out. He only makes it halfway through: Father, I’ve sinned against heaven and before you… while his father nearly smothers him in his arms and is calling out to the servants for the finest robe and the family ring and shoes for his blistered feet. And he’s ordering servants around to kill the calf and call the musicians and gather the people for a party. My son, my son, my son. He was dead and he’s alive again; he was lost and he’s found. And the music started and the wine flowed and the party began.

There are no deals in the arms of our heavenly Father. And any confession we make, is made in the embrace of His forgiveness. We don’t earn our way home, we are received. We are welcomed home.

This parable really is first about Jesus Himself, the Son who left His royal throne, the home of His Father, emptied Himself of all the perks and privileges of being the only Son of the Father, took on our human Flesh and humbled Himself in the lostness of our death. He didn’t squander the inheritance, we did. We all did. We all do. You do. Jesus came to the pig pen of our Sin, our mess, our muck and mire. He was baptized into it. He was crucified in the midst of it. He was buried in it. And having risen from the dead, He goes back home to the Father to be received at the right hand, wearing the royal robe and the signet ring of the Son with a feast thrown in His honor.

The parable is about you too. You as a guilty sinner. You baptized into the Son. You in Christ embraced by the Father. You clothed in Christ and forgiven, called to be a child of God. You are that prodigal son, lost and found, dead and alive. God’s Son has found you, claimed you, redeemed you, raised you, clothed you, and forgiven you. It’s because of Jesus that the Father love you and embraces you and welcomes you. You don’t reek of your sins, you smell of Christ. You’re not soiled with the mess you’ve made, you’re washed with the blood of the Lamb and clothed with the robe of His righteousness.

There’s an older brother. He’s not at the party but out in the field, doing his work. He hears the sounds of celebration, the music, the singing, the dancing. He smells the roasted meat. He comes near to the house and asks a servant. “Hey, what’s going on?” And the servant tells him, “Your brother has returned, and your father is throwing a party for him. He’s safe and sound.”

The older brother is furious. He refuses to come near the party. He wants nothing to do with it. Even when his father comes out and pleads with him, he won’t. He says, “Look, I’ve slaved for you all these years, I’ve done everything you asked me, I’ve never gotten into trouble, never done anything wrong, never disobeyed a single command, and you never even gave me so much as a goat so I could party with my friends. But when this son of yours, who wasted everything on prostitutes slinks home, you throw a party for him. Party? For him? No, thank you.

The father won’t let him off so easily. “Son (notice that the father never disowns his sons), you’re always here, always with me, everything I have is yours. But it’s meet, right, and salutary that we should celebrate. Your brother, your brother, was dead and is alive, he was lost and is found. We had to celebrate.”

And there the story ends. We’re left hanging. Will the older son go to the house or not? Will he join his younger brother to feast at the expense of his father’s prodigal mercy? Or will stew in his anger and resentment outside of a party in which he has a place? Will he rejoice at his the lavish grace of a father who forgives both his sons, the good one and the bad one, who welcomes home the lost, who justifies the sinner?

At the end of the parable, which son is lost? The commandment keeper. The religious son. The one who did all the right things for all the wrong reasons. And in the end, what keeps him out of the party? Not the father! He’s begging him to come. Not his brother! He has only himself to blame if he’s excluded.

Jesus told this parable to the religious, who imagined that they didn’t need to repent and who looked down on those who did. The ones who grumbled about the sort of company Jesus kept for dinner companions. We “lifers,” we religious people, we who have literally grown up in the Father’s house run the same risk when we begin to imagine that a place in His house is earned. Sinners need to clean up and smell nice before they are welcomed in their father’s home.

Only those who see themselves as sinners will rejoice in the repentance of a sinner.

Only those who see the rebel in themselves, will join this party of rogues and prodigals called the church.

Jesus our Brother, the Father’s Son, went to the depths to save us. He was lost but is found. He was dead but now lives. And you are found and live in Him.