Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Mother of Many Children

Jerusalem, God’s Zion, came down from heav’n above.
She’s our beloved mother, whom we, her children, love.
It’s here that God is dwelling, in spirit here is found;
of truth it is the pillar, and is it’s very ground.
Songs and Hymns of Zion No. 188, v. 1.
In this as-yet-unpublished newsletter article, my old fundamentalist church announces a surprising change in its long-standing doctrine of exclusivity. Be sure to read my comments that follow the article at the bottom of this posting. [Suomeksi]

MOTHERS in God’s Kingdom often have many children, and they receive them all as precious blessings. Each child brings an individual personality and gifts to the family, and much joy to their mother and father, who do not wish to place artificial limitations on these blessings.

We often refer to God’s Kingdom itself as a spiritual mother. “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal. 4:26). “The mother feeds and cares for her children. So also does the Kingdom of God, the spiritual Mother, which Rebekah-mother in the Old Testament portrays” (By Faith, p. 31). God’s children are welcomed, nurtured, and loved by this mother, who accepts them with joy, just as the natural mother accepts all of the little ones she is given.

This abundance of love and welcoming grace has been a recent topic of discussion between members of the LLC, SFC, and SRK boards, as well as servants of the word in our respective sister organizations. With humble hearts and thanksgiving for God’s blessings and guidance, we have learned anew “what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height,” and “to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge” (Eph. 3:18). It has been revealed to us how much of an accepting and loving mother God’s Kingdom really is, perhaps more so than many of us in our weak understanding had realized.

Believers Around the World

There are, we must say along with one of our Lutheran confessional books, “truly believing and righteous people scattered throughout the whole world.”1 Our spiritual predecessor Martin Luther said in his time that there were “Christians in all the world,” that “no one can see who is a saint or a believer.”2 And so we understand that the Rebekah-mother gladly welcomes all who would be her children, whether they are in our particular assembly of believers or not.

God’s Kingdom is precious to us, “our beloved mother, whom we, her children, love” (SHZ 188). Here we find comfort and the forgiveness of our sins. But there is a danger of putting too much emphasis on God’s Kingdom as an organization, as an assembly of people, and making God Himself secondary to it. “I will not give my glory unto another” (Isaiah 48:11).

We can also look to the words of Luther in this: He wrote that anyone who “maintains that an external assembly or an outward unity makes a Church, sets forth arbitrarily what is merely his own opinion.” We must humbly agree with our brother in faith that there is not “one letter in the Holy Scriptures to show that such a purely external Church has been established by God.”3

During our concluding meeting at the SRK offices in Oulu, we received much loving instruction from God’s Word and a spirit of unity. With tears of joy, one brother read simple instructions from the Bible about how we can know where the Spirit of God is: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God” (1 John 4:2). Every spirit, he repeated, and went on to read how we can know who God’s children are: “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).

Another brother recalled that the Apostle Paul considered the Gentiles as equals in God’s eyes. He noted that this was a significant new revelation for the Old Covenant believers of that time, too. But there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek, Paul wrote, “for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:12-13).

A question arose about the preaching of the Gospel in the verses that follow: How can other people “call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” Luther wrote that whoever hears the Gospel and believes on it, and is baptized, is called and saved. And, he added, “the Gospel is nothing else than the preaching of Christ.”4

We cannot allow our traditions about the Gospel and forgiveness to take away from God’s Word. “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book” (Rev. 22:19). This portion says that whoever calls upon His name shall be saved and then simply points out that people cannot call on someone they haven’t yet heard of.

There were many around Paul who had no knowledge about Jesus. We certainly cannot say the same today of the many millions of people who faithfully read the same Bibles we have and praise God’s name in their own churches.

God’s Ways Are Beyond Human Comprehension

The mind of man rebels against such inclusiveness. Who are these strangers we are to consider as possible fellow-travelers on the way that leads to heaven? How do they get their sins forgiven? But these questions arise from our sin-corrupt flesh.

It is important to remember that God’s grace is not limited by the limitations of our carnal reasoning. “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end” (Eph. 3:20).

Random, marginally relevant nature scene [Flickr page]

Apostle Paul reminds us, “Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all” (1 Cor. 12:4). We have seen many sorrowful incidents in our own history since the time of Laestadius where “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Mat. 23:23) have been forgotten over minor issues and personality differences, leading to needless strife and divisions. There “should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another” (1 Cor. 12:25).

Our brother Juhani Raattamaa, whose portrait hangs alongside Luther and Laestadius in some of our church buildings, honored the Apostle’s message during a spiritual storm that took place in our Zion about a hundred years ago. He continued to show love for a prominent servant of the word who had been rejected over obscure matters few of us can even recall anymore and who was forced to journey in faith with a group called the Esikoinen, or “Firstborn.” After the death of this “beloved brother and fellow laborer,” Raattamaa remembered him “with sorrow and joy, even though his body is resting in the bosom of his Fatherland, but his glorified soul is rejoicing in the Paradise of God.”5

The question about how these other believers get their sins forgiven is easy to answer in the case of our Esikoinen brethren; they preach it in the name and blood of Jesus just as we do. There are thousands of them in the United States and Finland receiving this message with joy every Sunday. That forgiveness, Raattamaa said, has been given “to the flock in living faith which is scattered around the whole world of all peoples and tongues. The sermon of repentance and forgiveness of sins is established with them.”6

Have we been like John when he forbade a stranger from casting out devils in Jesus’ name, just because the man did not walk with the disciples? The Lord of Life did not commend John for doing that. Rather, he said, “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:50).

God’s Kingdom is not some entity located in Minnesota or Oulu, just as it was “not bound to Rome” in Luther’s day. Rather, it is “as wide as the world, the assembly of those of one faith, a spiritual and not a bodily thing, for that which one believes is not bodily or visible.”7

Boundless Grace

Paul said that God wants all men to be saved and that they would come to the knowledge of the truth. Therefore it is not the will of God that anyone be lost. He has not prepared hell for men, but for the devil and his angels.8 The Lord, Peter writes, is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

With our weak understanding, can we say that God has not been able to achieve His will except when it comes to our small Zion? “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8).

Jesus told His disciples, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Certainly they were a small group when He spoke those words, for the same reason that Paul wrote about those who had not heard. God’s promises of the Old Covenant had only just been fulfilled in the few decades since Jesus’ birth. In our time, two thousand years later, the world is filled with people who are happy to take on the name of a Christian. We should not hasten to pass judgment on their faith. “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:37).

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was sent for the sins of the whole world, not just for ours. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16). It is grace of grace to be in God’s Kingdom. “Our faith is the greatest of gifts we could own / Through Christ we are given the hope of a crown” (SHZ 403). But now, in His time, God is revealing unto us that we should not be too quick to say that others are not among His own as well. “God is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth” (Psalm 145:18-20).


Important disclaimer and commentary:

It is April 1, and that date for this “article” is no coincidence; none of this was actually written by any church official or for any church newsletter. (The epigraph is indeed a verse from a song in the church songbook, by Anna Tulkki.) It is “as-yet unpublished,” and always will be, because it’s a parody I wrote in honor of the holiday. There have been recent discussions between representatives of the LLC, SFC, and SRK, but I seriously doubt that univeralism or even acceptance of “worldly” Christians was on the agenda.

I can still write like a believer, but I’m not a Laestadian or even a Christian anymore. (Nor am I really convinced at this point that there’s a God behind our astounding yet scientifically explainable mess of a universe, though that’s another topic entirely.) But I know plenty of people who used to be Laestadians, and a few who are still sitting in the pews while enduring their own painful private silences of doubt and cognitive dissonance. Many of those who have left are still Christians of one type or another who get to hear their faith dismissed as worthless and irrelevant by their former brothers and sisters.

This was written for all of them. May our beloved old church evolve toward the kind of compassionate and realistic position this essay describes (alas, still only as parody) within our lifetimes or at least those of our children.

And I wrote it for those readers who are still Laestadians, too. You know who you are: Better clear your browser history before anyone else finds out! I hope you’ve found something to ponder here. Every one of these quotes and cites is real, and relevant. Think about how much you are marginalizing your Savior and the omnipotent creator of the universe (in your beliefs, at least) by making him unable or unwilling to save all but 0.002% of the world’s population. Some further reading along those lines: “God’s Kingdom,” “Sailing in a Sea of Humanity,” and “The Christmas Program.”

Because the Bible is so full of contradictions, either one of two opposite viewpoints often can be selected and amplified via the Laestadian-style quote-bombing I tried to illustrate above. There is certainly another more orthodox essay that could be written about God’s wrath and how he plans to exercise his infinite power to torture almost all of his created humanity for not being Laestadians. But it would be a less honest and compelling one, I think, and certainly more depressing to read.

Click on images for full-size versions, as usual. Here is the link to download the full-size 1920x1553 version of the top one, which I created using The GIMP free image processing software and years of looking at way too many real Voice of Zion issues that had arrived in the mail.
Many thanks to an anonymous correspondent for supplying a translation into Finnish, which was completed in a matter of hours, and for correcting one of my Bible references in the process. There are some amazing people out there!


  1. Philipp Melanchthon, The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Paul T. McCain, ed. (2005), p. 146. Melanchthon, Luther’s co-worker in the Reformation, wrote the Apology to defend The Augsburg Confession that they had published a year earlier. Luther was involved with the writing of the Apology and approved of it. In a 1533 letter, he urged Leipzig Christians to adhere to both works (McCain at p. 70). 

  2. Martin Luther, The Papacy at Rome. In Works of Martin Luther (“Philadelphia Edition”), pp. 361, 391. 

  3. The Papacy at Rome, pp. 350, 355. 

  4. Martin Luther, The Epistles of St. Peter and St. Jude Preached and Explained, “The Second Epistle General of St. Peter,” Ch. 1. 

  5. Juhani Raattamaa, 1892 letter following the death of John Takkinen. From The Streams of Life, Carl Kulla, ed. (1985), p. 393. 

  6. Juhani Raattamaa, sermon given 1894. From The Streams of Life at p. 181. 

  7. The Papacy at Rome, p. 361. 

  8. These three sentences are actually a quote from Journey of Fiery Trials (1961) by Lauri Taskila, a Laestadian preacher, which have ample support in the Bible, e.g., 1 Timothy 2:1-6; 2 Peter 3:1. But in the real world outside of an April 1 parody, Taskila went on with an unsurprising Laestadian qualifier: “Of course, it is the will of many men to die blessed, but the world is dear and its vanishing course is pleasing where slavishness and scorn of men keep them from repentance” (pp. 58-59). Apparently the threat of infinite, eternal torture is not incentive enough for all those uppity folks.