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God’s Word for You

Luke 15:21-32 lost and found

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, October 12, 2018

31 The father said, ‘My child, you are always with me and all I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because your brother was dead and now is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

Listen to the father’s gentle, loving word, “My child.” This isn’t the usual word for son, but teknon (τέκνον), “child.” The older son had everything the father had; it was his inheritance. If the father never offered the son a goat to celebrate with his friends, we need to ask, did the son ever ask for one? “Ask,” Jesus says, “and it will be given to you” (Luke 11:9).

As for the celebration, it had to happen. Was Jairus grim when Jesus gave him back his daughter alive? Did Mary and Martha carry on as if nothing happened as they helped their brother unwrap his graveclothes? Did the people of Nain continue to grieve when Jesus raised the widow’s son to life? Will you talk in a monotone when you embrace your parents and grandparents in heaven?

This is a good place to review what the Bible says about our spiritual rebirth, when a spiritually dead person is made spiritually alive. Permit me to summarize some points from Professor Adolf Hoenecke (1835-1908) in his Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics, Volume III, pages 245-255.

Thesis: Rebirth is that act of the Holy Spirit in which he makes a spiritually dead person spiritually alive, since he gives the person saving faith through the Sacrament of Baptism or through the Word of the gospel.

Point 1. Rebirth in the proper sense as spiritual vivification (“coming to life”) is essentially the giving of saving faith to the sinner.

Although this can be talked about in a wider sense, for our purpose we look at the narrower sense of justification, in which the spiritual coming to life is parallel to salvation through faith. Hoenecke: “One enters the kingdom of God through a new birth (John 3:3) but also through faith (Mark 1:15). We are reborn to a living hope (1 Peter 1:3), but since faith is only the confidence of what one hopes for, rebirth must be the conferring of faith. Titus 3:5 confirms this.”

Point 2. Rebirth is certainly a fundamental transformation of man, but not a transformation of his essence.

This is a formal way of stating that we are at the same time saint and sinner (simul iustus et peccator). Forgiven by Jesus, we retain the fallen state and continue to sin, as is evident of every forgiven person in the Bible: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc. We cannot become perfect in this lifetime, but we are comforted that our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus. “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives” (1 John 1:10).

Point 3. Taken very strictly, rebirth is momentary; only when it is taken more widely can it be called gradual and thus efficacious and yet resistible.

The instantaneous aspect of rebirth is illustrated by passages such as John 5:24, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life,” and “He who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12). However, there is also a daily renewal: “Inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). “The Old Adam in us should be drowned by daily contrition and repentance, and… all its evil deeds and desires (should) be put to death. It also means that a new person should daily arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Luther: Baptism, Fourthly).

Point 4. The causes that move God to allot to a sinner the grace of rebirth are, on the one hand, his mercy and, on the other hand, Christ’s merit.

The first of these is God’s inner motive: his own mercy. “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Paul makes the same point in Ephesians 2:4-5,7.

The second of these is God’s external or outside motive: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, which is the merit of Jesus. The same passage (1 Peter 1:3) combines these two motives into one simultaneous cause, for our sakes.

Point 5. Rebirth is worked only and alone by God but also only through the means of grace.

The means of grace are the means by which God’s grace comes to us through the organ of faith, which operates in much the same way that an I.V. tube works in a hospital patient. The tube is not the patient’s own doing, but something his physician gives him in order to receive the medicine. The patient did not choose it, but he can, if he is driven by madness, tear it away. This is also true of faith. But through this channel of faith, God’s grace comes from the source of the gospel. This is either the gospel in the Word of God itself, or the gospel in the sacrament of holy baptism, or the gospel in the sacrament of holy communion. Therefore, we say that the means of grace is the gospel, in word and sacrament. There are many passages about salvation coming through the gospel (1 Corinthians 4:15; Galatians 4:19; James 1:18, and especially 1 Peter 1:23), and also that baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21; Acts 2:38) and that the Lord’s Supper saves and gives the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28).

Point 6. The goal of rebirth is ultimately God’s glory and man’s salvation.

The saved sinner is now able to grasp that Jesus is the Savior (1 John 5:1), and that he should live in sanctification, the constant and daily renewal and growth in his godly living (1 John 2:29, 3:9, 5:4) and doing good works (Ephesians 2:10). These are intermediate goals of rebirth. But the ultimate goal is that the sinner now has eternal salvation (Titus 3:5) and that God is glorified (1 Peter 2:9).

Jesus’ words, “He was lost and is found,” should be contemplated carefully, for each syllable and grammatical nuance preaches sermons to us. If each of us begins by considering that each one of us is the “he,” but that every sinner we might secretly despise is also “he,” then we will have come a long way to understanding this divine parable of forgiveness, and what our goal should be as we live out our lives of faith, and offer the gospel to everyone.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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