by Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann++
(Introit, Ps. 22:19)
“Thus saith the Lord, ‘Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk therein’”
For most Lutheran Christians, Palm Sunday occupies a unique position among the Sundays of the church year. This is true not only because the day ushers in the solemn contemplations of Holy Week, with the reading of the Lenten story, not only because the Gospel lesson of the day tells us of that unique incident in the life of our Savior, His entry into Jerusalem, but also because in most congregations the day has been set apart for the solemn act of confirmation. Palm Sunday has for many centuries been the day on which new members were received into the Christian congregation, when they made a public profession of their faith and were declared ready to receive the last instruction in Christian doctrine before being admitted to the Lord's Supper. For that reason Palm Sunday is a day of solemn memories for many hundreds of thousands of church members, a day on which they quietly and definitely renew the baptismal vow as they repeated it on the day of their confirmation. And even if a Christian was not received into adult membership into the Christian Church on Palm Sunday, he will readily join the other church members in remembering the solemn occasion when he made his vow to be faithful to the Triune God and His Word, and specifically to his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Such a solemn renewal of the vow by which a person declares his allegiance to the Savior is particularly necessary in our day, when so many difficulties have arisen to endanger the simple faith of Christians. It is true that the Christian Church, in its outward appearance, has apparently made much headway in recent years. The number of church members, according to available statistics, has increased by many per cent over the gains recorded a few years ago. Over 60% of the people of America now profess adherence to some church**. It is most unfortunate, however, that in many instances, this outward membership is not the expression of a full and complete adherence to the full truth of the Word of God. There is a good deal of formal Christianity, including a fairly regular attendance at the chief service on Sunday morning, chiefly because this is considered rather fashionable. But when one inquires about the attendance at other church services, at Bible hours, and at meetings in which further progress in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ is the goal, there are bound to be great disappointments. And if we should go one step farther and inquire about regular worship in the home, and about daily Bible reading by the individual, the disappointment would be increased in considerable measure. It is truly a sad phenomenon, but one which cannot be denied, that many congregations, especially in the large cities, have, for the majority of the membership, degenerated into social clubs with a religious veneer, and that the call of the Lord: “My son, give me thine heart” (Pr. 23:26), is falling upon deaf ears.
And there is another point which must be added here, namely that of the attitude taken by a great many people who disdain to be reckoned with churchgoers, many of whom even are out-and-out enemies of the Bible and its soul-giving truths. Somehow people have gotten the notion that Christianity, the Christian religion, the Christian faith, are on trial, that the truth of the Bible has been cited before the tribunal of men and has been found wanting.
Is this true? Is the Christian religion failing? Has it been arraigned before the tribunal of men’s justice and found wanting? — Nothing can be farther from the truth. To all who entertain such notions the Bible calls out: “Nay, but, O man, who art thou that thou repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, ‘Why hast thou made me thus?’” (Ro. 9:20). Or: “The preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God” (1 Co. 1:18). Hence it is not the truth of God that is standing at the bar of justice, but the foolishness of man. It is the people of this country and of every city in it who are standing at the crossroads; it is they who should be found in great searchings of heart. For those who reject or ignore His Word and who foolishly criticize the eternal verities of Holy Writ the words are written: “Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.’ He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure” (Ps. 2:1-5). It is the almighty and all-wise God who calls out to men, in His holy Word: “This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left” (Is. 30:21). It is also He who speaks to us, in the words of our text:
AND YE SHALL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS.”
Let us, under the gracious guidance of the Holy Spirit, meditate on these words for a few minutes.
It is a solemn warning that lies in these words, just as solemn as that which we find in Christ’s own words: “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat” (Mt. 7:13). Truly, many are they that go in thereat. Many are they who are listening to the seductive voices of men who profess to be leaders to everlasting life, but whose way leads far from the path of heaven to a dreadful uncertainty which leads to everlasting destruction. Who are they who presume to put up their pitiful manmade theories over against the eternal verities of God’s Word? Ah, they glibly prate of scholarship and of the latest results of science. They presume to pick the Bible to pieces and to substitute for its divine truth the flimsy threads of human arguments. They fill the hearts of our growing boys and girls, of our young men and young women, with doubts concerning the wisdom before which the greatest achievements of man’s mind pale into insignificance. They speak of mistakes in the Bible, though nine out of ten have never even read the Bible. Yea, they lead men and women, or try to lead them, into new and strange paths, into paths where the truth of the creation story is ridiculed, where the inerrancy of the inspired Record is set aside, where the deity of Christ is declared to be non-essential, where nothing is left of the Bible but a shell and a hollow mockery.
But what saith the Lord? Let us repeat the words of Ps. 2:4: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” And the Prophet proclaims: “The wise men are ashamed, they are dismayed and taken: lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them?” (]e. 8:9). And again we read: “Thus saith the Lord, ‘Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord’” (Je. 9:23-24).
But there is another matter which ought to concern us most seriously at this time, one which is not connected, except indirectly with the attacks that have recently been launched against the Bible. It is a situation which confronts every one of us in a manner that ought to challenge our attention. It is the universal abandonment to selfishness which characterizes our times, the hectic seeking after the gratification of various appetites, the eagerness for sensual and sensuous delights. It was not in this manner that the kingdom of David and the Church of the Lord was built up through the preaching of the Lord’s prophets. It was not thus that George Washington became the “father of his country”; it was not thus that Abraham Lincoln, under God, was fitted to become its savior. It was not thus that the individual state in our great commonwealth was established, each so remarkable in extent and powerful in riches. And, above all, it is not thus that the Lord would have us live our short span of life, as it is allotted to us in this vale of tears. Shall we spend the money which comes to us as a gift from the hands of a kind Father for the pursuit and gratification of momentary and fleeting delights? Shall we waste our God-given strength in the vain pursuit of pleasures which sap our God-given energy and weaken the stamina of our nation? Shall we prostitute the liberty which is ours as the children of God into a license which endangers our soul’s salvation? — Ah, if there were fewer white lights burning to show the way to questionable and dangerous amusements and more white lights of consecration glowing within the hearts and souls of men in the interest of that which is good and elevating or, as the Apostle puts it, of “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report” (Ph. 4:8); if there were less strength dissipated in yielding to the vices of our day and more strength used in building up the homes and the nation and the churches; if there were less money spent in useless and dangerous luxuries and more for the sound establishment of things which are enduring for the welfare of home and Church: how much more would the pleasure of the Lord rest upon those who call themselves Christians! Does not the Lord say, in the Book of His eternal Truth: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world”? Yea, and He continues: “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever” (1 Jn. 2:15-17). And another Apostle writes: “Know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Ja. 4:4).
Are we then, my friends, following the allurements of the world's wisdom and of the world's temptations? Have we listened to the voice of the tempter and placed our souls in jeopardy? Oh, let us hear the warning cry of our God: “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein.” Mark what the Lord says through His inspired Prophet: “Behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid. Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, ‘Who seeth us?’ and ‘Who knoweth us?’ Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay” (Is. 29:14-16). The world passeth away, and the lust thereof, but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.
And this last promise is of such great importance in our present meditation. For we find that, in addition to the warning contained in our text, we have also a most loving appeal, a fatherly call to all men, for while the Lord admonishes us: “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein,” He adds the beautiful statement: “And ye shall find rest for your souls.” So we see that even the first part of the sentence contains an implied promise, for it says, in effect: If you will keep on standing in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way. The Lord thereby indicates that He presupposes such conduct on the part of all those who are truly His children. This being the case, we can appreciate the promise all the better: Ye shall find rest for your souls; namely, by following the right way and walking therein.
We know where the true path may be found; we know which is the right way to heaven. The Savior of mankind has said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (Jn. 14:6). Christ is the Way, because He has prepared the way into the presence of our heavenly Father through the blood of His cross. Does the false wisdom of this world throw up its hands in horror over the doctrine of the redemption, an idea which our oversensitive generation can no longer accept? We ignore all objections to the eternal truth, for we know that we have redemption through the blood of the Lamb, the forgiveness of sins.
Let us, therefore, give the closest attention to the words of our text, to the glorious promise included in the words of the Lord: And ye shall find rest unto your souls. The inspired writer of the Letter to the Hebrews states it as a simple fact: “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God” (He. 4:9). And in the same letter we find the encouraging question: “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (He. 9:14). That is the truth of God: The blood of Christ has purged our consciences from dead works to serve the living God, to walk in His ways. How then can any one, knowing Christ and the atonement through His blood as the only way, neglect to keep on seeking the one and only Way to heaven? Now, Jesus is found in the Word of grace, and in the Word alone. It is He who says, in the Book of eternal Truth: “Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me” (Jn. 5:39). It is He who inspired His holy writer to call out: “Wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word.” And again: “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps. 119:9,105). And let no one think that these passages refer merely to a sanctified life, for there can be no true sanctification without a knowledge and acceptance of the way of justification based on the redemption wrought by the Savior.
Have we been heeding His call: “...thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (De. 4:29). It is God Himself who draws men to the Savior, namely by creating willing hearts, such as are willing to be led and guided by Him, eager to learn more and more about the way to heaven through the acceptance of His promise: “Ye shall End rest for your souls.”
Have you been searching for Him in His Word? How often have you read the Bible, the Book which has rightly been called “God’s love-letter to all mankind”? There are less than 1200 chapters in the Bible and, by spending fewer than ten minutes a day on the average, or far less than one per cent of your time, you can easily read the Bible through once every year. Have you been observing a family worship hour, in which you and your loved ones spend some time daily with your Redeemer, in order to learn ever more about the way of salvation through Christ and His blood? There are 168 hours in the week: do you suppose that you could spare two of these hours in becoming acquainted with the eternal verities which are essential for your eternal happiness? O friends, as we value the great and the lasting things of this life, as we look forward to the life beyond the grave, as we desire to spend eternity in the company of our one and only Savior, let us heed the call of the Lord in our text: “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.”
- Thy grace brought me to faith
In my Redeemer’s blood;
Thy grace was sealed upon my heart
In Baptism’s holy flood.
Thy grace has kept me firm
Against unnumbered foes;
Thy grace sustains my trembling heart
In tribulation's throes.
Thy grace shall be the theme
Of my unending songs,
For my eternal gratitude
To Thee, my Lord, belongs.
Yea, when in heaven’s halls
I stand before Thy throne,
This shall I sing, that I am saved
By grace, and grace alone.
This is an interesting statistic cited by Dr. Kretzmann. His sermon was written in 1956, and according to then "available statistics," roughly 60% of America's population "confessed adherence to some church." One may assume that at that time the term "church" was limited to a church of some Christian confession. Of further interest with regard to this statistic is that it had recently "increased by many percent," perhaps giving some reason for Christian boasting. Dr. Kretzmann's further warnings and lamentations in this paragraph, however, make it clear that such increases, in and of themselves, were no cause for confidence as, “in many cases, outward membership [was] not the expression of a full and complete adherence to the full truth of the Word of God.” Moreover, church attendance and membership was generally known to follow from human weakness, as people tended to use church as a way to indulge their need to be “fashionable.”
In contrast, according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Christian was 76% – a statistic which represented nearly a 15% numeric increase since 1990, but, due to population growth over the same period, also represented almost an 11% decline as a percentage of American adults. Granted, as stated, this is a slightly different statistic than the one cited by Dr. Kretzmann, who cited “confessed adherence to some [Christian] church,” yet, I would presume to say that identifying oneself as “Christian” in 1956 would have been tantamount to confessing “adherence to some church,” whereas today, given the growth of the Emergent Church over the past 15 years and the growing rejection of organized religion, “confessed adherence to some church” can no longer be said to be equivalent to self-identifying as a “Christian.”
If one accepts that these statistics are roughly equivalent in nature, then even with a relatively much higher percentage of professing Christians in America today, and with raw numbers of Christians in America measurably increasing, it is curious to notice that today’s attitude toward Church attendance, even among those professing to be “confessional Lutherans,” has shifted that much further away from that of Dr. Kretzmann, who indicated that such increases were not necessarily cause for rejoicing, given that “full and complete adherence to the full truth of the Word of God” was not the confession of the adherents. Today, among advocates of the ubiquitous Church Growth Movement (CGM), the primary matter of concern is the health of the organization (whether it be the Congregation or the Church Body to which it belongs), where the health of the organization is measured in dollars. Since such organizations are non-profit and rely primarily on donations, this means essentially one thing: “butts in seats.” More numbers means more donations, and more donations mean a healthy church (or “church body” as the case may be), while fewer numbers thus means an unhealthy or “dying” or “ineffective” congregation or church body. Today, more than ever, to get "butts in seats," churches of the Church Growth Movement exploit the same apparently long-known human weaknesses – the human need to persue what is judged "fashionable" in the eyes of the World – as we observe them having thus “degenerated into social clubs with [little more than] a religious veneer.”
Kretzmann, P. (1956). Jesus Only: A series of Lenten and post-Easter Sermons. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House. pp. 55-65.
For more information about Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, see the Intrepid Lutheran post, Dr. P. E. Kretzmann: Standing on God's Word when the World opposes us