Part Two: The Gospel Foundation of Christian Fatherhood
In Lutheran theology we make certain distinctions that are usually helpful. A common
distinction we made is between the two kingdoms in which God rules over us. Luther
spoke of the kingdom of God’s right hand and the kingdom of God’s left hand. The kingdom
of God’s right hand is his kingdom of grace in which Jesus Christ reigns as King. He rules
over us by his grace. He won this kingdom on the cross. There, where he was publicly
identified as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, he won the authority on earth to forgive
sins. That is how he exercises the power of this kingdom. The power of the kingdom of
God’s right hand is not the sword or the gun. It is not coercion. It is the power of the Holy
Spirit working through the gospel.
The kingdom of God’s left hand is his rule through the civil authorities. We know that God
doesn’t endorse this or that political scheme. He doesn’t favor this or that political
philosophy. He can and does rule over people through monarchies, oligarchies, democratic
republics, and even outwardly godless forms of government like Communism or Nazism.
The kingdom of God’s left hand is how God governs our bodies. It has no power over the
soul. The civil authorities have the power of the sword, which ultimately may entail capital
punishment. It relies on coercion, not persuasion. It cannot make men better, but it can
impose better behavior on those who are afraid of being punished. St. Paul describes the
kingdom of God’s left hand that he exercises through the civil authorities in Romans 13.
When we pray for our daily bread we pray for good government. We pray that God would
deliver us from both totalitarianism and anarchy. Totalitarianism is when the state
transgresses into the authority of the church and lays claim to the devotion that the people
owe to God alone. Anarchy is when there is no viable state to exercise the civil authority
necessary to live relatively safe and peaceful lives on this earth. St. Paul mentions
specifically a quiet and peaceful life as the benefit of good government. (1 Timothy 2:2)
The twenty-first century has seen many parts of the world lurching back and forth from
totalitarianism and anarchy. This is especially the case in areas where radicalized Muslims
assume the reins of power. It makes one grateful to be a Christian living in America.
But here in America, we are facing serious problems of our own. As useful as the two
kingdoms distinction is, we American Christians might be better served by the threefold
Lutheran distinction between the ecclesiastical, the civil, and the domestic estates. The
family has been under attack for quite some time, and the church hasn’t always been
equipped to confront it. The domestic estate upholds both the civil and the churchly
estates. God rules over his children by the spiritual and bodily discipline of their human
Our topic is, “The Gospel Foundation of Christian Fatherhood.” This doesn’t mean that
there is not as well a legal foundation of Christian fatherhood. Indeed, all civil authority
derives from the Fourth Commandment. Children learn to submit to the civil law by
learning obedience to father and mother in the home.
During the time of Moses, Israel was governed as both church and state. God formed Israel
into a nation through Moses. The forty years of wandering in the Sinai Peninsula taught the
children of Israel that they did not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeded
out of the mouth of God. When God rules over the nation in this way we call this form of
government a theocracy. Ancient Israel is the only theocracy in the history of the world.
Other would be theocracies, whether of Calvin in Geneva or of the various Muslim
Caliphates, are not theocracies at all. God spoke to Moses at the burning bush to send
Moses to be his prophet, and ruler of both church and state. God didn’t talk to Calvin from a
burning bush, and he certainly didn’t talk to any Muslims. No, the only genuine theocracy
in the history of the world was the theocracy of ancient Israel. God governed the people
directly through Moses. While the church and the state could be distinguished
theologically, even as we distinguish between law and gospel, the church could not be
broken away from the state nor the state from the church. They did not exist apart from
the other. Israel was both church and state. Later, when they had kings like all the other
nations, Israel was no longer a theocracy.
When the government of the church and the government of the state are the same
government, which is preeminent: the church or the state? Put differently, does the state
exist for the benefit of the church or does the church exist for the benefit of the state? We
Lutherans should not hesitate. Inasmuch as the topic of justification is the chief topic of the
Christian religion, just so, the church – which consists of all those who are justified through
faith alone – is the apple of God’s eye. It is not the state. While the state isn’t under the
authority of the church, the state’s authority exists for the sake of the church even as God
directs all things under heaven and earth for the benefit of his elect. (Romans 8:28)
The office of Christian father, like the theocracy God established through his prophet
Moses, joins civil and spiritual authority. Just as the foundation of ancient Israel was Christ,
just so the foundation of Christian fatherhood is Christ. That is to say, the foundation upon
which the office of Christian father depends is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In his discussion of the Fourth Commandment in his Large Catechism, Luther speaks of a
“majesty hidden within” fathers and mothers. That’s a reference to the divine authority
that they bear. God cannot be known as Father except through faith in Christ our
Redeemer. It is only after Jesus has taken away our sin and reconciled us to God that we
can face God with confidence. The gospel is indispensable to knowing God as Father. And
so it is with the Christian father. He cannot be God’s representative to his family unless his
office is grounded in the gospel.
We are living during a time of deep confusion about the church and her ministry – a time
when unbridled religious enthusiasm is given free rein in the name of our freedom in the
gospel. The ministry of the church is divided into a plethora of offices, each of which has a
so-called divine call into it. These divine calls provide special status for religious people
doing religious things. Everybody has his or her ministry and everything remotely
connected to the church is a ministry.
Naturally, we fight about this. But I wonder if these fights aren’t misunderstood as mere
turf wars? I recall, during my time in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, when we were
discussing and debating the relationship between the office of pastor and the office of
schoolteacher, a veteran pastor of the synod shared his perspective on the issue by talking
of horses staying in their assigned stalls. His understanding of the matter was that if
pastors and schoolteachers did what they were supposed to do and did not invade the
other’s stall, then things would be just fine.
But the debate about the ministry among us has never been so simple. It’s not about who
gets to do what. It’s about what must be done. It’s about what the ministry of Christ really
is. The ministry of Christ is the ministry of reconciliation. It isn’t the ministry of bodily or
intellectual discipline. It’s the service of the forgiveness of sins. How may we obtain the
faith through which we receive the forgiveness of sins from God? Jesus established the
office of preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments to do just that. We call
that office the pastoral office, but it cannot be limited to the work of pastors.
We will speak of the father as the pastor of his home later this morning. He could not be
the pastor of his home unless his office as father was grounded in the gospel. A Christian
father is not just a father who happens to be a Christian. The Christian father’s office as
father exists for the same reason the pastoral office exists: that we may obtain the faith
through which we are justified by God. Consider the argument that God, through the
prophet Malachi, raises against divorce. We read in Malachi 2:13-15,
And this is the second thing you do:
You cover the altar of the LORD with tears,
With weeping and crying;
So He does not regard the offering anymore,
Nor receive it with goodwill from your hands.
Yet you say, “For what reason?”
Because the LORD has been witness
Between you and the wife of your youth,
With whom you have dealt treacherously;
Yet she is your companion
And your wife by covenant.
But did He not make them one,
Having a remnant of the Spirit?
And why one?
He seeks godly offspring.
Therefore take heed to your spirit,
And let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth.
The chief benefit of marriage is godly offspring. Divorce is bad because it hurts the
children. When a man discards his faithful wife, the gospel foundation of his office as father
is compromised. The gospel is Christ giving himself for his bride, washing her clean of all
her sins, loving her and caring for her as his own body. To dismiss the faithful wife is to
abandon the children to the devil’s wiles and lies. The father, who serves his children by
loving their mother, bears with her weaknesses, overlooks her faults, and models his love
for her from Christ’s love for his church. He is a father who can speak the gospel to his
children with authority.
Jesus spoke with authority, not as the scribes. He demonstrated the authority on earth to
forgive sins. He claimed all authority in heaven and on earth before he sent out his
disciples to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. This authority is given to the
church and is exercised by the pastor for the church’s benefit. This authority is given to
every Christian home and is exercised by the father for the family’s benefit. I know this
authority firsthand because I grew up with it. I was raised by a father with this kind of
authority. It was gospel authority. I didn’t leave home to find Jesus in church. I found Jesus
at home, around the dinner table, as my father taught the gospel to his family.
Every Christian home is a theocracy. It is a theocracy because the office of father is based
on the gospel. God spoke his words to Moses and through Moses told the fathers to speak
his words to their children. Listen to what he said. In Deuteronomy 6:4-9, God says:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one! You shall love the LORD your
God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these
words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them
diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when
you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them
as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall
write them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates.
Note the order of things. First the words shall be in your heart. Then you shall teach them
diligently to your children. What shall be in the heart of the Christian father? What is the
first word from God? It is this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one!” The
LORD who revealed himself at the burning bush, the LORD who identified himself as the
One who kept the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the LORD who rescued
his people from the slavery they had suffered for hundreds of years, the LORD who
promised to send his Son to be their Savior, the LORD who chose them, out of all the
nations in the world, not because of any merit or worthiness on their part, but because he
was gracious, this LORD is their God, and he alone.
That’s the gospel foundation of Christian fatherhood. God comes to us in Christ. He
chooses us as his children. He forgives us our sins, he regenerates us, he pours his Spirit
into our hearts, and he makes us his children. It is as children of the heavenly Father that
we Christian fathers carry out the office of fatherhood. The gospel is the foundation for our
lives. It is the foundation of our fatherhood. Our relationship to our children is established
by the gospel. Nothing we give them in terms of material goods can compare with what we
have received from God in Christ. We cannot believe for them. We can give them what we
have received through faith. And that is our next topic: The father as the pastor of his own