Conviction: The Yes and No of Faith

In one of my morning devotions last week, Luther said something rather interesting regarding the work of the Holy Spirit and the faith He instills by the Gospel in Christians. I found it almost as startling as I did comforting.

“The Holy Spirit is no skeptic,” Luther wrote. “He has not written an uncertain delusion in our hearts, but a strong, great certainty, which does not let us waver, and (may it please God) will not let us waver, but (praise be to God) makes us as sure as we are that we are now alive, and that two and three makes five” (On the Enslaved Will, 8 ff.).

Incredible. And when you consider the words of 1 Thessalonians 1:5, you know he’s right.

“Our Gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction.”

That Greek word Saint Paul uses here, which typically translates as “conviction,” is πληροφορίᾳ (plerophoria), and it means “complete certainty and full assurance.” Paul uses the word in other places, too. Colossian 2:2 and Romans 15:29 are a couple of examples. It is a word that, unlike so many words in our English vocabulary, is unmistakable in its purpose. It can’t be bent in a way that lessens the impact of its drive. When a first century Christian heard this word while listening to Paul’s epistle being read, he or she knew that there was no mistaking Paul’s own confidence in the Gospel and the commanding skill of the Holy Spirit at work within those who trust in Jesus as the Savior of the world.

And if for some reason they didn’t quite get it, they needed only to look around to see Christians laying their lives and livelihoods at Death’s stoop rather than forsake the One who gave His life as their ransom. Luther affirmed this when he kept on in the paragraph I mentioned above.

“We Christians must be sure of our Gospel and must be able firmly and without any wavering to say yes and no and stand by it.”

Yes and no.

Yes, I believe in Christ. No, I will not deny Him. Yes, I confess His Word as inspired, immutable, and inerrant, and the only source for faith, life, and practice. No, I will not deny His Word and follow the whims of the culture. Yes, I trust in Jesus for all that I have. No, I will not put my faith in the transient and mammonous things of this world.

Yes and no.

By the way, Jesus said this way before Luther.

“Simply let your yes be yes and your no be no; anything beyond this comes from evil” (Matthew 5:36).

Part of the Lord’s point here as He preaches the Sermon on the Mount: Don’t overthink or confuse your confession in ways that can, and often do, only serve to allow loopholes of escape from what is right and wrong, true and untrue. By the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for faith, be found confident in your stance on Him as the truest foundation. He isn’t a wobbly Savior. He’s steady and sure. And He’s not out to make you a wobbly Christian. The Word He gives to you is powerful. Its force is nothing less than tidal by size. And when it comes to the information it brings—Law and Gospel—it is so much clearer than many in this day and age would ever confess it to be.

The Holy Spirit by the verbal and visible Gospel—Word and Sacrament—feeds to you the fortitude to say yes and no in a way that aligns with this. Without it, we become the wobbly ones. We become those who aren’t sure of what we believe or who we are as baptized children of the Heavenly Father.

Conviction—complete certainly and full assurance—is located in Jesus alone. He is the birthplace of salvation and the very reason we can have confidence in the forgiveness of sins He has won on Calvary’s cross. The Father sends the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ name by the message of the Gospel to establish this within us. Be completely certain and fully assured by this promise. Trust that what’s being given at your church—Word and Sacrament—is of utmost importance and is good for you and your family. When you are sitting there in the pews, when you are handling the Word of God in Bible study, when you are engaged in these things, the promise is that, actually, these things are first engaging with you. You are being given things that Paul told the church of Ephesus are divine elements of “power” and “conviction.” The Holy Spirit who works through these, while at the same time being alive in you, is by no means skeptical of these heavenly gifts. He can’t be. Instead, He is devoted to them, and He’s fully committed to taking up residence and establishing the same confident devotion in you.

Thanks be to God for this!

Invisibility

I wanted to start off this morning by sharing a link to a video that a friend of mine shared with me. It shows a family doing a pretty good job of convincing their youngest daughter that she’d become invisible. You can view the video here.

So, what did you think? I should add that when it comes to a good practical joke, I’m all in. In fact, I have a fairly high threshold when it comes to practical jokes. Almost anything goes, as long as it doesn’t break the law. As a kid, practical joking was pretty much a way of life for me, my brother, and my sister. My brother is now with the Lord in heaven, so he can’t testify to this truth, but you could certainly ask my younger sister. She’d tell you just how hard it was for her to keep her Barbie dolls from being strapped to rockets and out of trees. And she’d affirm the terrorizing things my older brother did to me under the cover of darkness.

The point is, I have plenty of experience, both on the giving and receiving end of the mayhem. Even better, as a parent, such experience serves as a wellspring from which to sip when I’m in need of ideas for tormenting my own kids. Feel free to ask them, too.

But I’ll admit that the trick in this particular video bothered me a little. It was funny at first, but then I began to see and hear a palpable terror in a little one who had come to the realization that she was completely invisible to the people around her, namely her mother. In that brief moment between humor and fright, I realized something.

No one wants to be unseen to others. No one.

Sure, someone might say that he or she wants some alone time—a time to be invisible to the world. I get that. I feel that way sometimes. But that feeling comes and goes for various reasons, and some of those reasons, I’d guess, probably do emerge from the invisibility factor—the fact that so much of what we do and say and labor to accomplish is seen a certain way, and the rest of who we are is completely invisible to the ones standing right in front of us. Sometimes I need to get away from that.

From a different perspective, watching this video and admitting the shackles of a digital age—one full of smart phones and laptop computers and tablets—I wonder if we’re actually training ourselves to be so isolated from human contact that the only possible outcome is human invisibility.

I remember one evening this past summer having dinner with my family at Buffalo Wild Wings in Fenton. It was truly a time of joy just sitting together and laughing, talking about the details of each other’s lives, and just being the Thoma family. I remember leaning to Jennifer’s ear and whispering to her about my growing discontent with another little family a few booths away. It was a young couple with an infant child in a high chair. Both parents had their faces locked to the screens of their smart phones while the child sat there staring into nothingness. There was no interaction whatsoever with the child, and none between the parents. I concluded that this must be normal for them, because if they were so willing to display this in public, they most certainly lived this way in private.

I fear that child is at this very moment growing up invisible to the ones who matter, and this invisibility is because the time with the digital devices are more important to the parents.

Psalm 127:3 reminds us that children are a heritage and blessing for the Lord. Even more so, take note that whenever anything is happening in the Old Testament involving God giving blessings to His people, children are almost always ushered to the front of the line. In the New Testament, there’s no shortage of joy for children. Jesus Christ declares a great love for the little ones in Mathew 18 when He heralds their great value to our Heavenly Father. He does this again in the very next chapter when He rebukes the disciples for not permitting the children to be close to Himself. In John 21, before the Lord’s command to Peter to take care of His sheep, He first implores, “Feed my lambs.”

Children are by no means invisible to the Savior.

My hope for you today is that you would behold your little ones—no matter their age—and see them as the Lord sees them. He gave them to you because He loves you. He gave you to them because He loves them, too. That’s an incredible bit of information that, thankfully, was not left to the realms of invisibility, but rather was revealed by God’s Word for the benefit of His world, namely the wonderful underpinning of society known as “family.”

By the way, do you want to know one of the best ways to strengthen your family? Go to church.

You knew I was going to say that eventually, didn’t you?

Yes, worship together. Sing the hymns. Kneel in prayer. Listen to the Word and preaching. Approach the altar and gather together with other families to receive the gifts of grace in the Lord’s Supper. Be strengthened and then sent out by God’s holy benediction to be His Christian families in a world that truly needs the stability provided by the bright beaming light of His love through you.

Love Doesn’t Always Say Yes

Have you ever experienced one of those moments where something you knew to be so plainly obvious was spoken or acted out in a way that truly resonated as it had never resonated before? That happened to me last week during a visit with one of our member shut-ins.

Essentially she shared with me the concern that some of her grandchildren had opted to move in with their significant others. She had suspected this might be happening, but it was confirmed when one of the grandchildren called to say she’d be coming to a family gathering at her home and was wondering if she might bring her boyfriend along. During the conversation, the granddaughter admitted to Grandma that she was living with her boyfriend and hoped it would be acceptable for the two of them to sleep together in the same room.

“Honey,” she said with the kindly and gentle voice I know her to possess, “I’ll always love you. But no unmarried couples will be sleeping together in my house. It goes against what the Bible teaches, which means it goes against Jesus, and that means I have to tell you no.”

As soon as she said this, I was struck. Love doesn’t always say yes. Sometimes it says no.

Again, this is an unspoken obviosity for me. It probably is for most of you, too. As a parent, it’s a default reality. Although I’m not so foolish as to think that it’s not an altogether different matter in our culture these days, and most especially when certain unexpected situations hit us close to home. And yet, in that moment, her courageously plain words communicated to a granddaughter a message that was principled and precise. What she’d taught her when she was four years old hadn’t changed now that she was twenty-two. Just as it was back then, it was now. And not because she was a stubborn old lady stuck in her ways, but because God’s Word is immutable—unchanging and absolute. Steady on this, her words were gentle, but crucial in the moment. They communicated that the love of a Christian grandmother for a granddaughter was bound to act in faithfulness to Christ’s Word, and by this, she would seek her granddaughter’s good. She would do what she could to help shepherd her away from something bad to something so much better.

“I have to tell you no,” she said so crisply. Sometimes love says no.

In our world, telling someone no is getting much harder to do. Our society has become so radically individualized that saying no is more so portrayed as cruel, as coming from an intolerant opposition to someone’s personal preferences. In one sense, we all know the sting of hearing someone say no. We heard it when we were young and we’ve heard it as adults, too. I heard my parents tell me that I couldn’t have the cookie I wanted just as I’ve heard the word as an adult in various circumstances. But when it cuts to the core of someone’s identity as it did for this woman’s granddaughter, we often find ourselves in much more dangerous waters. The waves on this sea undulate between personal relationships that go very, very deep. Saying no in these situations can be a hard thing to do because we know there is the chance that it will come with a price we may not want to pay.

In truth, this tension didn’t exist in the beginning. In our sinless origin, Adam and Eve knew God perfectly, as God would have us know Him. In this, whether God said yes or no, there was no question that the answer He gave was emerging from His immeasurable love. And He did say no right there in the beginning. Could we eat from this and that tree in the garden? Yes. How about the tree in the middle of the garden? No. Why not? Because if you do, you’ll die.

Knowing the effects of the fall into Sin, Jesus knew it would be tough. In fact, in an almost rhetorical way, he says no to us when we ask, “Your Word is clearly leading me to tell someone no. If I do it, seeking faithfulness to you and serving in love, everything will come together just fine, being real easy, right?” He knows the significance of Sin’s grip. He knows that the world will choke on faithfulness like an addict coughing up the anti-drug, and so He says so plainly, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-38).

These words are both terrifying and comforting all at the same time. The longer I serve as a pastor, the more I learn that divine truths can sometimes be that way. But an even deeper digging into the Lord’s words will reveal that He didn’t say any of this until He first preached:

“When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (vv.19-20).

You know what this means, right? It means that Christ is true to His Word that we will never be left to fend for ourselves. The Holy Spirit will be working in and through us. In fact, as the Holy Spirit moves us to seek faithfulness to the Savior, even our words will be captured by His power and used to His glory and the good of those who hear them. We don’t necessarily know how each situation will turn out, and we may even walk away from the conversation feeling as though we put our own foot in our mouths, but we can know by faith the source of the truest courage for faithfulness to Christ and love for the neighbor. We can say the hard things and know that even if we feel alone, we aren’t. The One who spoke the powerful words I noted above is the One who capped Saint Mathew’s Gospel with the words: “And behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age” (28:20).

I know that a good number of you are swimming in such situations. And if you aren’t, there’s a good chance that you will be one day. As always, I keep all of you in my prayers. I know that God will preserve and protect you in those moments where the courage of a love that says no will be required. He will guide your words. He will shine His love through you to others, even when it doesn’t feel like it, and He will keep His promise that whoever loses his life for His sake, will find it—which is to say the ultimate discovery of eternal life is ours to claim through faith.

Of course you know I’ll do what I can to help in these situations. You only need to ask.