“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
1 John 4:1
1 John 4:1
“The foremost service of love is to teach rightly about religion.”
Martin Luther, AE 15:229
Martin Luther, AE 15:229
Not all that glitters is gold. Just because someone uses the name God or Jesus, just because someone extols missions and evangelism, just because someone speaks glowingly about the Gospel and the love of God — God’s people ought not be misled. The devil is exceedingly cunning in subverting people from the Gospel, using even the Scriptures to do so as He tried in tempting Christ. We ought not be naive, but rather be watchful and on guard against such counterfeits among us.
History has demonstrated this on numerous occasions, but we see this clearly in our Lord’s own words: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matt 7:21-23 cf. James 2:19)
The apostle Paul writes that Satan is able to transform himself into an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). He extolled the young pastor Timothy to turn away from those who have “a form of godliness” but “deny its power” (2 Tim. 3:5-6), even as he warned him about a time to come . . .
". . . when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables." (2 Tim 4:3-4; cf. 2 Pet. 2:17-18, Jude 1:12-13)
Thus, it is not sinful for Christians to examine critically such things as claim to be focused on missions and evangelism. It is not unloving to ask poignant questions and to examine faith and life thoroughly.
A question was asked not long ago and recorded in the Synod’s official media: “It seems to me that Ablaze! simply is about telling others the Good News of Jesus, but I hear that some people say there’s something theologically wrong with it. Is Ablaze! theologically sound?”
The official response was that “Four theological leaders in the Missouri Synod, including the presidents of the Synod’s two seminaries, say they find nothing in the theology of the Ablaze! initiative to be inconsistent with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.”
Despite the fact that such distinguished members of our church body have endorsed the theology of the Ablaze! movement, there are theological, financial, administrative and practical issues which deserve some attention. If the documents supporting the Ablaze! movement merited the scrutiny of “four theological leaders,” then they deserve our attention as well — including the consideration of the objections of those who say that “there is something theologically wrong with it.”
The maintenance of pure doctrine is NOT that one cannot find anything wrong with it. The issue is whether you can find something right with it. By way of example, there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with a sugar pill. But if you prescribe sugar pills for the treatment of cancer, then there is a BIG problem.
Thus, the issue is NOT whether one can find anything in the Ablaze! materials that is inconsistent with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. One could compose volumes of religious jargon and pious palaver that is not inconsistent with faith. But such things are altogether inferior and impotent in dealing with sin and its effects.
From my seminary days and later, I have known these four theological leaders used in the logical fallacy of an appeal to authority (which likes to drop names but fails to prove the point being contested). I have heard them commend material far superior to anything which can currently be found in Ablaze! publications. Indeed, if we were to set side-by-side the Ablaze! materials next to the Small and Large Catechisms, the Book of Concord, and Luther’s writings, wouldn't we find the Ablaze! materials to be inferior by far? So, why do these four theological leaders endorse what is inferior instead of commending what is superior?
Should these four theological leaders have given their imprimatur to the initiative which Dr. Kieschnick has led the synod to accept? Should we ourselves grant our tacit or explicit assent to this movement which Dr. Kieschnick conceived and has nurtured? Should Dr. Kieschnick and the Ablaze! movement in fact be commended — or condemned?
Dr. Kieschnick should be commended if he shows how the Lord does His gracious work through the Holy Scriptures, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion, demonstrating in accordance with the Lutheran Confessions that these are the only means by which the Spirit works. Dr. Kieschnick should be rebuked if the majority of his sermons, articles, actions and expenditures show a heavy dependence and reliance upon worldly means such as consultants who tell us nothing of the Gospel but focus on worldly media to get the world’s attention.
Dr. Kieschnick should be commended if he clearly and rightly distinguishes between Law and Gospel. He should be commended if his sermons clearly focus on the Word of God, showing how the Scriptures and the doctrines contained therein bestow forgiveness, life and salvation. He should be rebuked if his written preaching and teaching merely tell folksy, clever or heart-warming motivational stories — or worse — turn the Gospel into law by challenging Christians to do this or that rather than extolling what Christ has done and continues to do for them.
Dr. Kieschnick should be commended if he makes himself to be the servant of all as a minister of the Gospel. He should be commended if he by his example is willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel by speaking what is true and not what is popular. He should be rebuked if he makes himself out to be a corporate CEO who controls every aspect of the church from the Commission on Constitutional Matters to convention resolutions, to redistricting congregational circuits along political lines — and even lets himself be placed above all others by making himself immune to Matthew 18 so that no member of synod can bring a complaint against him or the district presidents.
Dr. Kieschnick should be commended if he encourages offerings as the free-will first-fruits giving of God’s people as the Scriptures describe. He should be rebuked if he endorses or allows others (by his inaction) to promote an assessment among the congregations of the LCMS in a way which Dr. C.F.W. Walther the first president of the LCMS condemned: "If our Synod would ever say, 'Every congregation must contribute one cent every year,' then the congregations should say, 'Not even half a cent!' You must beg; yes, we’ll gladly give to a beggar, but if you try to give us orders, our friendship is over. Because whether much or little — if we have conceded you a penny this year, you can demand a dollar next year, and even more in two years; for we would have then given you the right, the power, to tell us what to do."
Dr. Kieschnick should be commended if he encourages young men to diligent study in the Scriptures and the Confessions in their training to be faithful pastors (cf. 1Tim. 5:22). He should be rebuked if he facilitates the placing of minimally-trained pastors through back door programs which do not help men get a thorough understanding of the Scriptures by learning the original biblical languages, which do not give them ample time to study how true doctrine relates to right living, who do not learn the aspects of church history so that we do not so easily repeat the failings of the past, who do not understand liturgy and hymnody but who presume to construct their own orders of service.
Dr. Kieschnick should be commended if he clearly calls the ELCA to repentance, affirming what our synod has stated in convention that the ELCA is a heterodox body. He should be rebuked if he allows pastors in the LCMS to join ELCA pastors in worship, prayer, wedding or funeral services, thereby glossing over the teachings and practices of the ELCA which permit abortion on demand, which permits sodomizing homosexuals to join in marriage and to serve as pastors, which permits women as pastors, which permits the denial of the Scriptures as the Word of God, which permits at its celebration of the Lord’s Supper those who deny the very body and blood of Christ in, with and under the bread and wine.
He should be commended if he shows how Christ is here for people — how Christ is actually present in Word and Sacrament to give life, forgiveness and salvation. He should be rebuked if he speaks to the world only in terms of an abstract noun that Christ’s "love" is here for people, thereby misleading people of the world to consider life in Christ’s church in terms of their worldly understanding of permissiveness and acceptance. He should be rebuked if he does not make it clear that Christ’s love does not merely mean a solution to life’s difficulties but rather points to repentance and the denial of self, a real battle against the devil, the world, and our flesh.
Dr. Kieschnick should be commended if he promotes programs like Issues, Etc. which present sobering topics, frank discussions, and in-depth analysis of current issues in light of God’s Word as clearly distinguished and applied in our Lutheran doctrine. He should be condemned if he by active or passive means causes such programming to be silenced.
And in particular as we consider whether Dr. Kieschnick himself should be commended or rebuked in light of the years which the Lord has given him as president of the LCMS, we must also look to his chief work, the Ablaze! movement especially since its general concept has been adopted by the Synod in convention without any true scrutiny with regard to the specifics.
Considered independently from the beliefs and practices of Dr. Kieschnick, should the Ablaze! initiative itself be commended or condemned? (And as it goes for Dr. Kieschnick, so also for those like Dr. Sam Nafzger, Dr. Dean Wenthe, Dr. Dale Meyer, Rev. Robert Rogner and Dr. L. Dean Hempleman who have allowed their names to stand publicly as an endorsement of the theology of this movement.)
And at least two districts of our synod have chosen, after consideration, not to participate in the Ablaze! movement. There must be reasons why. Here are some possibilities:
The Ablaze! movement should be commended if it does not take credit for the success of the Gospel, which is solely the glory of God. The Ablaze! movement should be condemned if it promotes itself in all the synodical publications, missions programs, and causes hundreds of thousands in media expenses to promote its logo and trademark.
The Ablaze! movement should be commended if the freely-given offerings of Christ’s people go to actual mission work. It should be condemned if it uses offerings and gifts to pay for the equipping of “Christian” coffee houses among the affluent while it withdraws funding from poor minority mission congregations in the inner city.
The Ablaze! movement should be commended if it promotes the theology of the cross which is beset with troubles and hardships from the moment faith is given, but meets them with the patience and joy of forgiveness in Christ. It should be condemned if it promotes a theology of glory wherein the Christian life is depicted in a triumphalistic manner, acting as if the Christian life can be exuberant and successful if only one tries hard enough — and showing little need for confession of sins, daily repentance, and denial of self.
The Ablaze! movement should be commended if it directs the world to repentance as did Christ and His true servants like John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, and all the rest. It should be condemned if it attempts to promote a picture of God which is only loving, kind and caring without a word that our Lord is a zealous God who condemns sin. Even those who deny much of what we confess are able to recognize the problem that occurs when “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (The Kingdom of God in America, pp. 191 ff.) Or again, authors who cannot prescribe a truly Gospel response are still able to describe a key concern:
“If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament upon the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity. The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it.” (This Little Church Went to Market, p. 59)
The Ablaze! movement should be commended if it finds speakers for conferences who speak the truth of the Holy Scriptures in accord with our Lutheran confession of faith as stated in our synodical constitution. While analyses from those outside our confession of faith may be of interest to us, there solutions and commendations are not, for they do not direct us to the means of grace. Therefore, the Ablaze! movement should be condemned if it invites, pays, and advertises keynote speakers who deny infant baptism, who do not believe that pastors have the authority to forgive sins in the words of absolution, who do see the Lord’s Supper as a friendship activity rather than as the forgiveness of sins and preservation of faith, who confound Law and Gospel, who teach that people can decide to become Christians according to their own free will, and who maintain double predestination. (Have the LCMS ever had so many Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentacostals, and “non-denominational” motivational speakers telling us how to live the Christian life as we now have with the Ablaze! initiative?)
The Ablaze! movement should be commended if it condemns postmodernism, that philosophy of life which states that there are no absolutes wherein individuals should be empowered to go their own way as it pleases them. The Ablaze! movement should be condemned if it succumbs and resorts to postmodern methods while claiming to lead people away from postmodernism. It should be condemned if it fails to teach people to deny themselves, take up their crosses and follow Christ (Mark 8:34). It should be condemned if it suggests that if potential members want to have “purple carpeting with pink polka-dots” installed in the church sanctuary then Christian congregations are obligated to install it in order to win souls for Jesus.
Shall we praise or rebuke? Shall we commend or condemn? It was not Abraham Lincoln but rather our Lord Jesus Christ who first proclaimed: “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). It was our Lord Jesus Christ who said, “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three” (Luke 12:51-52). We likewise note the words of the apostle Peter, “For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not heed the gospel of God?” (1Peter 4:17).
If congregations in the LCMS truly want to do missions and evangelism, they need to get the doctrine straight. A well-known mathematician quipped that “there is no royal road to geometry.” Similarly, there is no royal road to pure doctrine and right practice. We need to speak some pointed words to those who buffet us with mediocrity and visions for the church which are delusional.
Still, even though at times it may seem like we are hoping against hope in a church body where the divisions have been sharply marked, we pray that the Lord would have mercy upon us according to His Word. We pray that by the grace of God we may truly be “like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:2) and that we may all “be of one mind, having compassion for one another; loving as brothers, being tenderhearted, courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling” (1Peter 3:8-9)
We pray to the Lord as in the words of the General Prayer that “we may be preserved in the pure doctrine of Thy saving Word, whereby faith toward Thee may be strengthened, charity increased in us toward all mankind and Thy kingdom extended.” May the Lord grant it for Jesus’ sake.
In Parts 2 and 3, we will examine in greater detail specific aspects of the Ablaze! movement and the Fanning the Flame initiatives as well as an in-depth analysis of the document written by Butch Almstedt by which Dr. Kieschnick maintains the doctrinal integrity of the theology of Ablaze!