Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Net of the Fishers of Men

     At Bailing Water in the post Calling all Confessional Pastors, attention was called to a wonderful sermon by the Rev. David Jay Webber, entitled 25 January 2009 - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20. The sermon is about being fishers of men and the net of the Gospel. The audio is available here.

     I very much enjoyed and appreciated the sermon except for one point. At first I thought that I could overlook it, but it would not go away. The point is inaccurate and false. It has the appearance of being very minute. However, one false declaration set in the company of an otherwise wonderful declaration of the truth makes the whole declaration false. Therefore consider the following:

     In the sermon Dr. Webber quotes rightly what is correctly expounded in the Formula of Concord of the Confessions of the Lutheran Church in the Book of Concord. A bit later he makes another wonderfully expressed statement of the truth in the second quotation below. But then in the third quotation below he mingles a false statement with the truth. It is this mingling of falsehood with truth that needs to be made manifest.

     That’s why we confess, in the Formula of Concord, that

“human beings were so corrupted through the fall of our first parents that in spiritual matters, concerning our conversion and the salvation of our soul, they are by nature blind. ...they are and remain God’s enemy until by his grace alone, without any contribution of their own, they are converted, made believers, reborn, and renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Word as it is preached and heard.”

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     When people are converted, and believe in Christ, it’s as if they have been grasped by that net, have been taken up from the world of unbelief in which they were formerly living, and have been brought into the new world of the Lord’s Church.

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     “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure,” as we read in the Epistle to the Philippians.

     Our minds and wills are actively involved in our faith. When you believe in Christ for forgiveness, you are actively trusting in him and clinging to his promises.

     God does not convert us in such a way that we feel as it we are being dragged toward him against our will. Rather, it is precisely at the level of our will that God’s Spirit changes us, and gives us a desire to be saved from sin and to be joined in a mystical bond to Christ.

     God doesn’t save you against your will. God saves you by transforming your will, by giving you a new will, and a new heart, through the regenerating power of the Gospel.

     In the third portion quoted above the same error is repeated twice.

     First, “God does not convert us in such a way that we feel as it we are being dragged toward him against our will.” The sentence that follows is absolutely true and correct. But this statement nullifies what follows by directly contradicting it.

     Secondly, “God doesn’t save you against your will.” Again, this is a false statement that directly counters the true statement that follows it.

     The conversion of St. Paul as is recorded in Acts 9:1-22, is a prime example. In this event, this conversion of Saul, the Lord Jesus says, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

     Saul, the devoted Pharisee, was spiritually dead in sin and unbelief. He was an enemy of Christ and His Church. He was an enemy of the Gospel. He was actively fighting against the net of the Word so that the Lord Jesus declared to him that he was kicking against the pricks or the goading. It was not until he was converted that Saul’s will became actively involved in the faith to which he was converted.

     Every part of the conversion of Saul was worked against his will. He was actively resisting it and fighting against it. He had absolutely no desire to be converted and to be brought to faith. As Dr. Webber rightly says, he had to be lifted up out of his old life and world and placed into the new life and world of faith. Only after this had been done for him did his converted and transformed will take an active part in cooperating with God. First his will had to be transformed or converted. Every action of Saul prior to this was in the opposite direction. The Formula of Concord also attests to this, saying: “Hence according to its perverse disposition and nature the natural free will is mighty and active only in the direction of that which is displeasing and contrary to God.”

     It is the same for all who are converted. Conversion is the transformation of the unbeliever’s will so that he is regenerated and made alive through faith. Then, living and walking as a regenerated believer, the person actively participates in this life of faith, willingly and joyously.

     This is not a small matter. This is not an unimportant distinction. It is the difference between one saving himself versus being saved by grace through faith. If one can by his own unregenerated will cooperate with God, then salvation is not by grace through faith and this is not a gift, but a work that is of ourselves.

     If indeed, we are saved by grace through faith as a gift of God, then this is worked against our unregenerated will and is purely God’s work without any cooperation of our own will. Then, since it is God’s work and not our own, there is no remaining doubt as to its effectiveness and validity. However, as soon as we make it in any way a cooperation, an operation of both God and us, a shared operation of the will God and our own unregenerated will, we are no longer talking about being brought into the kingdom in the net of the preached Word but by the baited line technique that Dr. Webber correctly denounces in the rest of his sermon.

     There appears to be a reason that this confusion and mingling of error with truth occurs so that even in this otherwise truly wonderful sermon a false statement is repeatedly declared. That reason would seem to be that the Church and kingdom into which the souls are being brought is not being clearly distinguished from the churches where people are being brought in by the other methods.

     If the true Church is defined as only the gathering of those who are brought in by the net of the Gospel, then those gatherings that are comprised of those who are brought by other means cannot be counted as the Church. Until a person truly embraces this distinction, the confusion and mingling will continue for that person and will pervade his thinking and preaching. This is true of pastors and of the members of congregations alike. As long as it is accepted that the Church includes those who are fishing by means other than the net of the Gospel, and as long as the Church is counted as including conflicting doctrines and practices insofar as “enough Gospel remains,” the pure Gospel is not being proclaimed and the true Church is not acknowledged.

     A person cannot embrace simultaneously that the Church exists purely by the use of the net and also by the use of baited lines. If one embraces both simultaneously as the Church, then the preaching will reflect that the person does not really believe that it is purely by the net.

     This is why the converted St. Paul says:

     But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10:6-10)

     What the mouth confesses is what really resides in the heart. This is why St. Paul also says: “Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” (1 Cor 12:3)

     A person who is speaking by the Spirit of God cannot simultaneously call Jesus a liar and the Lord. A person cannot say that Christians are lifted up in the net and placed into the kingdom as the only way and simultaneously say that they can be brought into the kingdom through other means. A person cannot say that the Church exists as the gathering to the pure administration of the Gospel and Sacraments and simultaneously say that the Church can exist as a gathering to something else, to a different doctrine and practice. Yet all who belong to the church bodies created by men attempt to do exactly this. The apostles, speaking by the Holy Spirit, say that we cannot remain in communion with those who persist in false doctrine and practice and continue in the Holy Communion of God. Yet pastors and congregations pretend that this can be done.

     Then they wonder why their churches are divided and live in confusion. Then they wonder why even in the very best of sermons, falsehood cannot be completely weeded out.

     The apostles practiced what they preached. They walked away from mixed communions and denounced them as not of God. They not only preached against false doctrine and practice, but they also stood apart from it. When a communion persisted in mingling falsehood with the truth, after a couple of warnings if they still did not repent, the apostles pronounced them not to be the Church.

     The apostles left everything to follow Jesus. This included the Temple. This included the synagogues. This included their family and friends with whom they had worshiped all of their lives. They became separated from all that they formerly embraced.

     This is what the net does. It separates us unto Christ in His Church. Jesus said:

     Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. (Matt 10:34-37)

     The Word of the Gospel is not sent to make peace on the earth but to cause division between those of the world and those of the kingdom of God. This sword/Word causes divisions in the most intimate relations so that peace cannot exist between those who stand on opposite sides of this sword/Word. No middle ground exists. The sword cuts between the two.

     The net and sword are the same Word. The separation is the same separation. Those who are gathered by the net see everything to which they once belonged cut off from them by the sword. Those who cling to what they once were are dragged back into the sea from which the net dragged them and they are cut off again by the sword.

     In the mixed communions a facade is maintained. Many of the right things are said and done. Perhaps even most of the truth is maintained. But the truth is mixed with elements of falsehood, rendering it impure. The truth is not impure. Where such mixture is tolerated, the truth no longer remains. The truth cannot be restored except by separation from all impurity, all falsehood. If the falsehood cannot be removed, then the truth itself must be extracted and kept elsewhere.

     This is the part that makes the Church always exist as the remnant, the tiny part that is torn away and separate. This is why the Church has always been treated and counted as outcast.

     We kick against the pricks. We fight to find ways not to be cut off from those whom we have embraced. In the end, either we are separated from them by the net, or we finally are counted with them.

     This is a hard saying, but the truth knows no compromise. The Lord Jesus says that if your eye ensnares you to pluck it out and if your right hand ensnares you to cut it off. Our eyes are our perceptions and our right hands are our reason and strength and all upon which we depend. This is spoken to those whom the net has already lifted out of the world and placed into the kingdom. Is your pastor preaching to you from within a church body of mixed doctrine and practice, a church body or congregation that is not clearly separated from the world? If so, even if the sermons themselves have no errors, they nevertheless join you to the errors of the church body or congregation. Where then is the separation that the net and sword must work?

     As one person at the Bailing Water blog site called this, this theology has no substance. It is merely popcorn theology. No separation from falsehood can result from this. All that comes from such is infighting and backbiting and pointing of fingers. Within the same body quarrels fester and grow but are never resolved. People take sides, but always from within the same house. In the end the only resolution is to continue to fight together. Certain rules are established and sometimes even enforced regarding the style and form of the fighting. But the fighting never ends. The fighting can only be ended by the absolute rule of the Truth. Where the Truth alone rules, all falsehood and the arguments regarding the Truth are driven out.

     The Lord and His apostles define the Church as this separation unto the Truth. But how many who profess to be the Church are truly separated unto it? If indeed God has converted us and has transformed our wills to be in accord with His will, then we will act accordingly and follow Him and be separated from all from which He has separated us. Won’t we?


Anonymous said...

I think you need to interpret Webber's statement, "God doesn't save you against your will," in its context. He is not denying that salvation is by grace alone, but he is saying that when people ARE saved - that is, when they have indeed been "taken up from the world of unbelief" - they AT THAT POINT have transformed wills which are in accord with God's will. It's just another way of saying what Article II of the Formula of Concord says here:

"When, however, people have been converted and thus have been enlightened, and the will has been renewed, then such people desire the good (insofar as they are born anew and are new creatures) and 'delight in the law in the inmost self' (Rom. 7[:22])."

Likewise, what is being rejected by the expression that he here uses in his sermon is the same false belief that is rejected in the antitheses of Article II of the Formula of Concord:

"Likewise, when these expressions are used without explanation, 'that the human will resists the Holy Spirit before, during, and after conversion' or 'that the Holy Spirit is given to those who resist him.' For on the basis of the preceding explanation it is obvious that when no change at all toward the good in mind, will, or heart occurs through the Holy Spirit, and the human being does not at all believe the promise and has not been prepared by God for grace but resists the Word completely, then no conversion takes place or can exist there. For conversion is such a change in the human mind, will, and heart effected by the activity of the Holy Spirit that the human being, through this activity of the Holy Spirit, can accept the grace offered. Indeed, all those who stubbornly persevere in resisting the Holy Spirit's activities and movement, which take place through the Word, do not receive him but instead grieve the Holy Spirit and lose him."

You note: "Saul, the devoted Pharisee, was . . . actively fighting against the net of the Word so that the Lord Jesus declared to him that he was kicking against the pricks or the goading. It was not until he was converted that Saul's will became actively involved in the faith to which he was converted." But another way to make that same point would be to say that it was not until he was SAVED that Saul's will became actively involved. And that's exactly what Webber is saying. In the sentence in question he happens to use the term "save" rather than the term "convert," but in the context it is clear that it means the same thing.

You are also critical of Webber's statement that "God does not convert us in such a way that we feel as it we are being dragged toward him against our will." But notice that in the context Webber is not talking about that which PRECEDES conversion (which is what you are talking about regarding the resistence of Saul of Tarsus), where unregenerated people do indeed resist God's grace. Webber is talking, rather, about the conversion itself. A CONVERTED person, as a converted person, doesn't feel this way. That's his obvious point. The statements that surround the two sentences you don't like are not contradictions. They are contextual elaborations of the same point he is consistently making throughout this section of the sermon.

Not Alone +++ PAS said...

Dear Anonymous Commentator,

In your response you do not address me as though I were attacking the person of Dr. Webber. Thank you. Indeed, I do not in any way intend such.

I also appreciate your desire to put the best construction on what is said, both by myself and Dr. Webber. I actually would prefer not to address the matter at all. However, this is a sermon, preached by a seasoned pastor. This sermon is the topic of public discussion. Moreover, the sermon itself purports to attack, or address and redress, false doctrine. Thus it is necessary to speak openly on the matter.

Dr. Webber makes some very fine points, many in fact. But this one point is not a small matter, and your assessment is erroneous.

I’ll explain.

Dr. Webber addresses the distinction between the net and the baited line method of fishing. He addresses the conversion that God works through the activity of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. He distinguishes between the work of the Church and the work that God alone does.

Then he says, “God does not convert us in such a way that we feel as it we are being dragged toward him against our will.”

It may be that as you suggest that he means for this to be understood as post conversion. But that is not what he says. But even if he did, it still is a false statement. Anyone who honestly examines what God does in conversion must realize that God must conquer our unregenerated will in order to convert us and save us. Even after we are regenerated, God still has to conquer continually the Old Adam who rises up in us and wars against the New Adam. St. Paul speaks of this warring that continues in us. Our will according to the Old Adam still resists and must be conquered daily. And yes, even though the regenerated will rejoices, our old fallen will kicks and fights and counts it as being dragged against our will.

Contrary to Billy Graham and James Kennedy and others who say that the Holy Spirit is a gentleman caller, He is not. He pulls out the axe of the Law and cuts the Old Adam to pieces and pulls the New Adam out of his grasp by means of the Gospel. The Lord Jesus speaks of Himself as the robber who enters Satan’s domain and binds the strong man so as to loot His kingdom. Jesus steals back the fallen children of the devil and makes them members again of God’s kingdom and family.

Now this is not merely a gloss. Dr. Webber repeats this error when he furthermore says, "God doesn't save you against your will."

Not only does he repeat the error, but he does not catch it as he preaches it. He wrote it and then preached it, saying it twice without becoming aware of the need to correct it. This lack of awareness means that even if he did not mean to say it that it flowed naturally from his thinking.

This is why it is a serious matter. This is why it is important to consider what would make such a statement not seem foreign to one as scholarly and alert as Dr. Webber. Something numbed him to his use of this language.


You quoted me as saying: “It was not until he was converted that Saul's will became actively involved in the faith to which he was converted."

Then you politely argue:

“But another way to make that same point would be to say that it was not until he was SAVED that Saul's will became actively involved. And that's exactly what Webber is saying. In the sentence in question he happens to use the term "save" rather than the term "convert," but in the context it is clear that it means the same thing.

You are correct that Dr. Webber used the terms “save” and “convert” interchangeably. But you are dead wrong in saying that he applies the “not against our will” to post conversion.

He says: “God doesn’t save you against your will.”

This is a false statement. It is wrong.

It comes from the emotionalism of decision theology. It is the same language of the false understanding of Evangelism that Dr. Webber intends to denounce. With one sentence he denounces the false evangelism and with another sentence he proclaims it.

The scary part is that he did not catch it, not when he wrote it, not when he proof read it, not when he preached it, and not when he prepared it for uploading to the web site.

This is why I am calling attention to it.

This is also why I called attention to the fact that both pastors and people are binding themselves to a spirit sleep when they knowingly continue in a communion where such false doctrine and practice is tolerated and worse, propagated. The Lord Jesus and His apostles warn us about allowing our spirits to be lulled to sleep. They warn us to flee from such settings and communions.

Is this happening? Are the pastors leading the way? Or do they continue to try to bait the line and evangelize the long departed church body in which they have invested? The even bigger problem than the baited line fishing technique is the fact that no one is pulling the people out of the worldly church bodies into the boat of the pure Church. Instead, people are merely being dragged around from one corner to another and taken off of one stringer and placed onto another.

In the end both the pastors and the people become convinced that the pure Church does not exist and they give up. They would profit far more by letting the devil have his church bodies.

But then, this would require that God convert them, against their wills, and lead them in a way that their own wills openly resist. It would mean that God convert them to take up their crosses and follow Him, leaving everything behind.

Is it then possible to argue saying: “God does not convert us in such a way that we feel as if we are being dragged toward him against our will” and “God doesn’t save you against your will”?

Perhaps Dr. Luther’s explanation to the Third Petition is of service.

How is this done?—When God breaks and hinders every evil counsel and will which would not let us hallow the name of God nor let His kingdom come, such as the will of the devil, the world, and our flesh; but strengthens and keeps us steadfast in His Word and in faith unto our end. This is His gracious and good will.

This is something that is not easily digested. It is worth some time in serious contemplation and prayer.

Anonymous said...

Your criticism would be valid if Webber's point of comparison is this one: "God does not save you against your will. Rather, he saves you in accordance with your will." But that is not his point of comparison. His point of comparison is this: "God does not save you against your will. Rather, he saves you by transforming your will and giving you a new will."

You can't pluck an isolated statement out of the sermon and criticize to be saying something that Webber obviously is not saying. Look at what he says elsewhere in the same sermon about the unregenerated will:

"The old sinful nature finds the genuine message of God's Word to be poisonous and deadly. The unbeliever, in his inner hostility to God and the things of God, would actually like to stay as far away as possible from the true God and his holiness."

"God surprises us with his faith-creating mercy. By the power of his Word he overtakes us, and instills within us desires and wishes that come from his Spirit, and that do not arise from our own sinful hearts."

Shouldn't we assume that a preacher will not be contradicting himself in the same sermon, but rather than he will be making his point in various ways from various angles? The statements you don't like are just Webber's way of making the same point he makes elsewhere in the sermon, namely that when people are converted it is God who converts them through his Word and that they are not converting themselves, even if it seems that they are converting themelves because they now have a will that wants to believe in Christ.

Not Alone +++ PAS said...

Dear Anonymous Commentator,

You argue: “Shouldn't we assume that a preacher will not be contradicting himself in the same sermon, but rather than he will be making his point in various ways from various angles?”


We should expect this but not assume it.

I prepared an explanation, but it really should not need to be explained.

We should always be on guard. The Gospel is too important and precious for us to forget this.