We aren’t strangers to Luther’s Table of Duties from the Small Catechism. We hear those verses of Scripture that speak to our responsibilities as Baptized Christians during our time in the Catechism before the Service starts. And just a few weeks ago the section we read together was entitled, “What Hearers Owe Their Pastors.” The best summary of Scripture’s list of what hearers owe their Pastors is listening ears and respect. But I think Luther missed an opportunity to elaborate. How is it that you hearers should listen to us Pastors? You should listen with a discerning ear. You should listen while your eyes study the Scriptures. Your job as a hearer in this regard was summed up well by St. John in his first Epistle where he said: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). That’s not to say you should listen with suspicion. My job isn’t to sprinkle in a heresy or two just to make sure you’re on your toes. In fact, I made vows to do the exact opposite of that! Instead, you should listen to make sure what I say is in accord with what God’s Word teaches and with the summary of the faith as found in the Small Catechism. Sadly, not every Pastor is faithful to Scripture. Just as God revealed through the Prophet Jeremiah in today’s Old Testament Reading, some people go out claiming to be from God and preach lies that are contrary to the Scriptures or claim to be sent by God when they go out only by their own dreams and imagination. So, you as hearers owe it to your Pastors to be diligent studiers of the Scriptures so you can grow in faith and knowledge and encourage us to do the same. But you don’t just owe that to us; you owe it to yourself to be a student of the Scriptures, to immerse yourself in the living and active Word by which the Holy Spirit increases your faith and prepares you for the life to come. Immersing yourself in the Word will never, ever be a bad thing for you to do.
Jesus does not have indifferent words for those who would lead you astray and teach things contrary to the inspired, inerrant Word of God. He calls them wolves in sheep’s clothing, a demonic name, and rotten trees with bad fruit which should be cut down and thrown into the fire, shorthand for hell. This may sound harsh to our modern ears, but Our Lord is showing us that doctrine is not an indifferent matter, someplace we can agree to disagree. People who claim to stand in the stead of Christ and teach or preach false doctrine do not stand in Christ’s stead, but the devil’s and can lead you to eternal death. Theology is that serious. It’s not just a playful pastime.
Why? Remember Jesus doing battle with the devil in the wilderness: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). Every Word that comes from God to us is precious and to be held in the highest regard. Hearing the Word of God, holding it sacred, and gladly hearing and learning it brings great blessings, the greatest being eternal life. Hearing false doctrine that obscures the Gospel and teaches us to live in ways that are blatantly contrary to the Word of God bring condemnation.
That’s why the Lord was so angry in the days of Jeremiah. False prophets were leading people directly to hell. Hear again what Jeremiah said: “[The false prophets] say continually to those who despise the Word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” Certainly those being led astray claimed to believe in the true God, those in the Gospel who call Jesus “Lord, Lord!” The modern equivalent are the people we all know who claim to be Christians but intentionally live contrary to the Ten Commandments—refusing to attend the Divine Service, refusing to honor authorities, demanding that it is their right to have sex with whoever they please, doing everything possible to take that which is not their own, saying whatever they want about whoever. Repent. The people who meet that description of knowingly breaking God’s Law aren’t just sitting out there, enjoying a leisurely brunch or sleeping in. Every one of us have been led to believe we can live like that by the false preacher that lives inside of each of us, called our sinful nature or the Old Adam. That’s why we all must hear preachers who preach the same sermon that Jesus did: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk. 1:15).
That’s not to say we are saved by our works, that there is a list of things to do to earn God’s favor and gain heaven. Of course, we can never do that because all of our attempts at self-made righteousness always fall short. Those who call out to Jesus, “Lord, Lord!” and go to hell are the same ones in the Parable of the Sheep and Goats who plead their own works, who tell Jesus, “No, I didn’t feed You when You were hungry or clothe You when You were naked because I never saw You like that. But look at everything else I did. Shouldn’t that count for something?!”
Our works are never enough. But Jesus doesn’t just fill in our gaps and make up for the places we’re short. He is completely righteous while we are sinners through and through. He is completely living while we are in the midst of death. So, Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death are our hope. When we are led astray by the unholy trinity of preachers, the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, we turn to the Atonement, to Jesus laying down His life in our place, doing everything to accomplish our salvation. That is our trust—His death and resurrection, not our works. And on top of this, Jesus has given us the Holy Spirit who protects us from false prophets and false teachers who would lead us astray. The Bible, which He has caused to be written for our learning and salvation, is our shield against the spiritual wolves. When you don’t know if someone is teaching correctly, read Scripture, review the Catechism. Read the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer. Every attack the world has, every sin they say is okay and want you to go along with has been addressed in God’s Word. Living not by bread but by that Word of God helps you find those who teach the simple truths of God’s Word that lead you on the way of salvation. They remind you that you are Baptized into Christ, that He forgives you and by His Holy Spirit gives you the ability to turn from sin and live in ways that are pleasing to your Father in heaven. And because you are given Christ’s work and His Spirit, “you are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.