Sunday, January 24, 2016

Mark's thoughts: The Church's institutionalized fornication



Most pastors, or at least the pastors I know, will tell you that weddings are one of the least enjoyable aspects of their vocation as pastor.  They do not say this because of “bridezillas” or overbearing mothers of the bride or mother-in-laws to be.  They do not object to weddings themselves, which can of course be wonderful and joyous celebrations of God’s gift of marriage.  Instead they say this because time and again the meeting with a couple who wants to get married confronts the pastor with the issue of cohabitation. 

We live in a culture where a couple living together before marriage is considered normal.   For many, cohabitation is simply the expected step that leads from dating to marriage as a relationship deepens.  In a world where sexual intercourse is part of dating, the decision to share a bed in the same residence is a natural progression.

The problem is that such a practice is diametrically opposed to God’s ordering of creation that he has revealed in his Word. God created man in his image as male and female (Genesis 1:26-27).  He created the woman from the man as the helper who perfectly corresponded to him – the helper whom man needed  because God declared that it was not good for man to be alone (Genesis 2:18-23).  In the creation of the woman God instituted marriage and established sexual intercourse as the constitutive action that establishes a new and permanent union.  We read in Genesis 2, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV).  Jesus affirmed this fact and its permanence when he said:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6 ESV)

Because sexual intercourse is intrinsic to God’s ordering of marriage, engaging in sex outside of marriage is a violation of God’s will and is sin. The New Testament refers to this misuse of sex with the word πορνεία, usually translated as “sexual immorality” or “fornication.”  God’s Word leaves no doubt that if a person does not repent and receive forgiveness, fornication is a sin that brings eternal damnation:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality (πορνεία), impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21 ESV; see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-10).

Although God’s Word is clear on this point, the sexual revolution that has advanced since the 1960’s has created a situation in which the culture now assumes that sex outside of marriage, and therefore cohabitation, is entirely acceptable and normal.  This has created tremendous pressure on the Church to accommodate the world and its new sexual behavior. The simple fact is that many churches that claim the name Christian have caved.  In mainline protestant churches the wedding of a couple living together is unremarkable.  Roman Catholic priests perform weddings for cohabiting couples.  In the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod too, it is not difficult to find pastors who regularly marry a man and a woman who are living together.

In many of these cases, it is not that the priests and pastors believe cohabitation is acceptable.  Often there is a pragmatism that recognizes the risk that if these couples are not allowed to marry, they will leave the congregation and go somewhere else where they can be married while living together. Many times pastors face great internal pressure from family members, such as parents, who attend the same congregation.

A common justification for the practice of marrying a cohabiting couple is that by marrying them, the sin of fornication is removed.  If the problem is that the couple is engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage, by marrying them the issue has been solved.

Yet such an approach completely fails to address the need for repentance.  Jesus’ ministry was one which called sinners to repentance.  Mark tells us, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'" (Mark 1:14-15 ESV).  Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32 ESV). After his resurrection he told the disciples, “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47 ESV).

Repentance does not only mean that a sinner admits that sin has occurred and forgiveness is needed.  It also means that the person stops and turns away from that sin.  As Yahweh told Ezekiel: “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live;  turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:11 ESV).

Christians cannot engage in “planned repentance.”  They cannot think, “I will engage in this sin now. Then later I will ask for forgiveness and everything will be ok.”  Such willful sin is the path that drives out the Holy Spirit. Cohabitation is unique in character because it is the planned, conscious and willful decision to live in a sinful state.  This is not a case in which on some night alcohol lowered inhibitions and things went too far.  It is instead the very deliberate and involved process of moving in together so that the couple can engage in sex on a regular basis.

Ideally, a pastor should never face the issue of cohabitation for the first time when he meets with a couple to begin wedding preparations.  When a pastor learns about congregation members who are living together he should engage in pastoral care that leads either to a termination of cohabitation apart from a wedding in church (see below) or ultimately to excommunication. When pastors know about a couple living together, they are unfaithful in their call to care for Christ’s flock (Acts 20:28; Hebrews 13:11) if they do not address the situation with pastoral care that leads one of these outcomes. 

However, the conscientious pastor can still find himself surprised. Even in a smaller congregation the pastor cannot know everything about members and an absence of knowledge becomes more likely as the size of the congregation increases (a fact that is part of the appeal of a large congregation for some people).  Since pastors often find themselves asked to marry a congregation member’s daughter or son who does not live in the area, even the most faithful pastor can experience the sinking feeling of seeing that the address on the information forms is the same.

When confronted with this situation, it is unfaithful and unacceptable simply to proceed with a wedding in church.  The practice in which couples live together up to the day of their wedding in church is institutionalized fornication.   To do so denies all that we confess about the Sixth Commandment. It says that fornication is entirely acceptable and normal for Christians, and is simply the entry into marriage.

Only baptized Christians will be married in church (1 Corinthians 7:39).  However, for many who have been baptized at some point in their life, the faith no longer plays any meaningful role.  Pastors often find themselves asked to marry individuals who do not see their wedding and marriage as being focused on Christ. 

From the perspective of faith and God’s will for life, it may seem strange that such couples want a wedding in church.  But in our culture a wedding is “the big show.”  It is “the big party.”  When it is assumed that a couple lives together before marriage, a wedding is not the start of something completely new.  The wedding night holds no mystery for the couple. The wedding does not signal the beginning of life lived together.  Instead the church is the stage and the pastor is a prop that is needed for “the wedding of their dreams.”  The couple wants the experience of the wedding, and the church and pastor are necessary elements of this, like the dress, the flowers and the meal.  Woe to the pastor who has the audacity to “deny them” this because of the Sixth Commandment.

Actions have meaning.  In fact the saying is true when it comes to practice in the Church: Actions speak louder than words.  It will not do to teach the Sixth Commandment in catechesis and then deny it in practice by marrying couples who live together.  Some parts of the Church have been so impacted by the culture that cohabitation is just no longer an issue.  Others know what is true, but find themselves unable stand up to the cultural pressure.

Most often the pastoral practice of marrying cohabiting couples is couched in the language of being “loving” and “understanding.”  A variety of factors are cited (such as economic ones) that prohibit the couple from living in separate locations.  The pastor may then tell the couple to live in separate rooms and to abstain from sexual intercourse until the wedding. Such an arrangement is expected to exist for months on end until the wedding date.

Yet such pastoral practice cannot be considered acceptable for two reasons.  First, no pastor should counsel individuals to place themselves in the setting of certain and intense temptation.  A couple that intends to marry feels intense emotional feelings toward one another.  The cohabiting couple has already experienced sexual intercourse and this has become part of their life together.  The notion that such a couple will then continue to live in the same residence without having sex is folly.  The pastor is permitting them to exist in a setting of intense temptation where it is highly likely that they will sin.

The second reason is the witness that cohabitation gives to the world.  Everyone knows what happens when a couple in a relationship lives together – they have sexual intercourse.  This is what people (rightly) assume.  When a Christian couple lives together and then gets married in church, the Church is telling the world that she is no different from the world. This cannot be.

When a pastor learns that a couple that wants to get married is living together, the matter is no longer about a wedding.  Instead, it is about pastoral care for the spiritual welfare of the two individuals.  By living together outside of marriage, they have intentionally placed themselves into a sinful state. The only way to deal with this is repentance, confession and absolution.

Repentance means not simply admitting they have done wrong but also turning away from this sin.  The sinful state must be ended immediately.  In private confession and absolution the sin must be confessed and forgiveness spoken.  If the couple wishes to be married in church they must end their cohabitation and establish residence in separate locations.

There will be situations in which couples object that this is not possible for any number of reasons (financial are the most commonly cited).  When faced with this, the pastor can tell the couple that one of them must stay at a separate location for the brief time that it takes get a marriage license and be married by the justice of the peace.  This marriage can later be consecrated in church using the Rite of the Blessing of Civil Marriage.  Such a service allows for the opportunity of much of the ceremonial people wish to experience in the public setting of church.  As a concession by the pastor and congregation, in the same scenario of living separately until they can get a marriage license, the pastor may be willing to marry them in a private ceremony.

Many couples will react strongly against such a suggestion.  After all it, it denies them their “dream wedding” and is done in the admission that living together was sin.  Yet this is often the nature of repentance.  No one ever said that turning away from sin is easy.  It is sin that seems like the easy way. With good reason Jesus said:   

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV).

If they are not willing to end their cohabitation, or if they are not willing to get married immediately in this fashion, then they love their sin more than Christ and his Word, and have no business being married in Church.  The Church and her ministry are for repentant sinners. 

With ever increasing frequency, cohabitation involves children from previous relationships.  When children are present in this way, the household is functioning as a de facto family. This is challenging for the pastor since now he must also take the welfare of the children into consideration.  In this situation, it does not seem prudent to tell the couple to end the cohabitation by moving apart until a later wedding date.  Instead, the immediate options of a wedding license and marriage by the justice of the peace or a private ceremony with the pastor seem best.  In such situations it may not be best for one parent to stay in a different location until the wedding license is obtained and the marriage takes place.  Instead, the best option may be to tell the couple to abstain from sexual intercourse during this brief time.

There will be those pastors who object that how they choose to handle cohabitation is their choice and their responsibility alone as the called overseer in that place.  In the challenging circumstances of our present culture, they are free to carry out pastoral practice as they are permitted by their own conscience.

However a pastor and a congregation never stand alone.  How one part of the Body of Christ chooses to act impacts other parts.  This is especially true when congregations have chosen to join together on the basis of common confession and practice such as the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  The pastor who chooses to marry cohabiting couples creates difficulties for the pastor who does not.  As an experienced layman once told me about this issue: “Well, different pastors choose to handle it in different ways.”  The implication was that there is not a right way, just different opinions about how to handle it.  Such a view does not reflect what Scripture teaches, and instead comes from the world.  It is very challenging to handle cohabitation faithfully.  It becomes even more difficult when people know that the LCMS pastor down the road marries people who live together.  Members seek to transfer to that congregation so that they can live together before marriage.  The pastor who marries cohabiting couples is considered “pastoral, loving and understanding,” while the one who does not is “judgmental, unloving and rigid.”  The ministry of the pastor who marries cohabiting couples undermines the ministry of the one who faithfully deals with the situation.

The biblical facts about the Sixth Commandment, cohabitation and marriage are simple and clear.  Certainly, the application in the world of this truth revealed by God is challenging. But the challenge is a product of the world’s culture and how sinful it has become.  The Church cannot accommodate and so enable sin.  The regular practice of marrying people who live together outside of marriage is institutionalized fornication.  It is a denial of the Sixth Commandment.  It a denial of God’s Word.  This is not something that early Church was willing to do. There is much that we can learn by considering the context of the early Church during the first six centuries and the way the Church chose to handle issues related to the Sixth Commandment.  To that I will turn in a second post.     







12 comments:

  1. I'm sorry but I think your definition of repentance that you used in this article is wrong. Article XII defines repentance as consisting of two parts, I) Contrition, that is terror striking the conscious and II) Faith, which is born of the gospel.

    If, as you say, repentance involves the person "stopping and turning away from that sin" we are all condemned to hell.

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    1. Pr. Surburg would be referring to the second half of the article you mentioned:

      "Amendment of life and the forsaking of sin would then follow, for these must be the fruits of repentance, as John says, “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt. 3:8)."

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    2. Here I would say you've answered correctly, but failed to make the distinction. Johan is right, and so are you, Rev. Hayes. But the distinction is thus:

      One part is description of repentance (contrition, as given by the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of a believer, coupled with faith, believing your sins are forgiven for Christ's sake)

      The other is descriptions of FRUITS of repentance (amendment of life and such), and is the natural result of the indwelling Spirit on the life of the believer.

      However, to confuse repentance with the FRUITS of repentance is to confuse the definition of repentance.

      I would add that, based on personal experience, repentance can and should (and does) lead to fruit, but sometimes does not. Why? Lack of faith, not lack of will.

      At least, that's how I've come to define the terms based on Lutheran teaching.

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    3. There is indeed a distinction between a tree and its fruits. I simply meant that I did not find the OP to be particularly confusing on this point or denying justification by faith alone. I simply understood the OP to be expanding upon what the fruits of repentance look like, as Ap XII does on this very issue:

      Ap. 12:174: “What these fruit are, we learn from the commandments—prayer, thanksgiving, the confession of the Gospel, the teaching of the Gospel, obedience to parents and magistrates, faithfulness to one’s calling, peaceable conduct instead of murder and hatred, the greatest possible generosity to the needy, **restraint and chastisement of the flesh instead of adultery and fornication,** truthfulness—not to buy off eternal punishment but to keep from surrendering to the devil or offending the Holy Spirit. These fruits are commanded by God, they should be done to his glory and because of his command, and they have their reward” (Tappert 210).

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  2. I had an young man, raised in the LCMS, who had moved to Baltimore with his girlfriend for work and was cohabitating called me about marrying them. When I told him I won't do the wedding because they are cohabitating, he asked me if I would tell him the name of an LCMS pastor in the area who would.

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  3. Pr. Surburg, thank you for putting into words that which I have been trying to verbalize over and over again for the 30 years since my ordination but which has become epidemic in the Church especially for the last 20+ years. I believe that the TV show "Friends" is largely responsible for corrupting the thinking of young and old alike. I have copied your blogpost and plan to share it with at least one couple whom I long with all my heart to rescue from what I believe is there impenitence. There is a great need for this to be clearly and pastorally addressed in Christendom.

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  4. Johan,

    Even though many Lutherans today are quick to remind you, “Don’t worry— repentance is just a change of mind, nothing else!” the Lutheran Confessions don’t leave any room for that kind of reductionism, nor does Dr. Luther. In reality it’s impossible to separate the necessary effects (amendment of life) from a cause (repentance). This isn't to say that Christians are freed from their evil desires (concupiscence), but it most certainly is to say that we no longer live in sin. We have been granted the Spirit. We are not slaves to our evil desires. This is what C. F. W. Walther is driving at in Thesis XVIII of Law and Gospel. Pr. Mark Preus explained this well in his post over at Gottesdienst some months ago. So, no, of course one is not able simply to "stop lusting"— this is most certainly true; however, one is not therefore unable to stop cohabitating. Unfortunately, we Lutherans seem to have convinced ourselves that "the simul" means we're powerless to perform even civilly righteous works...such as the work of "not cohabitating." That is false. But some even go a bridge farther and say that we shouldn't even bother trying to live according to God's Law, as trying to do so would be "pietistic" and counting God's grace cheap. Since the lust of the eyes is "just as bad" as fornication coram Deo (such thinking goes), there's really no difference between the two, so, on balance, it doesn't really "matter" if we avoid the latter, or any gross outward sins, for that matter. I'm sorry, but...no. In my opinion Adolf Köberle's assessment of this evil distortion of sola gratia demands our sober consideration and reflection.

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  5. Lest we think that the Augsburg Confession's two parts of repentance yield some notional and incorporeal definition, the Formula of Concord makes the following statement:

    "The term repentance also is not employed in the Holy Scriptures in one and the same sense. For in some passages of Holy Scripture it is employed and taken for the entire conversion of man, as Luke 13:5: Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish. And in 15:7: Likewise joy shalt be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. But in this passage, Mark 1:15, as also elsewhere, where repentance and faith in Christ, Acts 20:21, or repentance and remission of sins, Luke 24:46-47, are mentioned as distinct, to repent means nothing else than truly to acknowledge sins, to be heartily sorry for them, and to desist from them." (FC SD V.7-9)

    So, too, Dr. Luther writes in On the Councils and the Church:

    "[T]here is no such Christ that died for sinners who do not, after the forgiveness of sins, desist from sins and lead a new life. Thus they preach Christ nicely with Nestorian and Eutychian logic that Christ is and yet is not Christ. They may be fine Easter preachers, but they are very poor Pentecost preachers, for they do not preach de sanctificatione et vivificatione Spiritus Sancti, 'about the sanctification by the Holy Spirit,' but solely about the redemption of Jesus Christ, although Christ (whom they extoll so highly, and rightly so) is Christ, that is, he has purchased redemption from sin and death so that the Holy Spirit might transform us out of the old Adam into new men— we die unto sin and live unto righteousness, beginning and growing here on earth and perfecting it beyond, as St. Paul teaches. Christ did not earn only gratia, 'grace,' for us, but also donum, 'the gift of the Holy Spirit,' so that we might have not only forgiveness of, but also cessation of, sin. Now he who does not abstain from sin, but persists in his evil life, must have a different Christ, that of the Antinomians; the real Christ is not there, even if all the angels would cry, 'Christi Christi'! He must be damned with this, his new Christ." (LW 41:113-114)

    He goes on:

    "[O]ur Antinomians fail to see that they are preaching Christ without and against the Holy Spirit because they propose to let the people continue in their old ways and still pronounce them saved. And yet logic, too, implies that a Christian should either have the Holy Spirit and lead a new life, or know that he has no Christ."

    If the necessary effects aren’t there, then neither is the cause. One can only separate them logically or abstractly, not in concrete reality. The view which regards repentance as a merely notional or mental event which can be said to exist without fruits worthy of it is, in a word, gnostic. Repentance is not the acquisition of the mere gnosis that you are bad and that Christ's grace covers your badness. Not at all. Pastor Surburg's article is spot-on.

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    1. Hi again Mr. Demarest,
      This is an old thread, but I'm going to try re-engaging, regarding your closing comments about repentance. Lots to say but I'm honestly trying to be brief; also typing very haphazardly, so please forgive anything which is not clear:

      "If the necessary effects aren’t there, then neither is the cause." We can say that and see that it is true. This parallels James’ discussion of spurious faith, and how we (i.e. humanity) see faith/justification through its fruits, as we cannot see faith itself. By extension, we only know someone is repentant if we can see the fruits of this repentance. But here I must ask, "How much fruit, for how long, is enough to satisfy the demands of the onlooker?" Would it be safe to say that for most/all people, the fruits we demand of others would far exceed the fruits we would hope others would recognize in our own repentance? From others we will demand the proverbial "pound of flesh," but from ourselves, extracting said flesh is a painful and unpleasant process, and so could they please take this quarter-ounce? Our standards change when looking at others (who have wronged us) compared to looking at ourselves (when we wrong someone else) due to our self-centered, sinful natures, no?

      Moreover, as opposed to "us" seeing, we know that God operates differently. As Luther says, we judge a person by their works, whereas God judges works by the person. Thus, only God knows whether one is truly repentant or not. Where fruit is lacking (to our eyes, although it is probably present nonetheless), true repentance may indeed exist. Where fruit abounds, repentance is not guaranteed, as people are often phonies.

      Going on, here's another big question: when Luther says above, “he who does not abstain from sin,” what's he really getting at? Let me ask another way. It's easy to say, “Ahh, I've not raped, murdered, committed adultery, stolen goods, etc. So I have abstained from sin.” But what if you look at your sin the way God does (i.e. not through the lens of “cheap Law,” to quote the vilified G. Forde)? Were you working your hardest all day? No? Then you have stolen from your employer (and God). Did you settle for your necessary 1800-calorie intake today in order to sustain your life? No? You had an extra 600 calories? You are a glutton and idolater who does not trust God. Did you look at a pretty woman and think about how she's a child-of-God, or did you simply focus on her physical attributes? I could go on and on. What I'm getting at is, if we're to “abstain from sin,” are we talking gross sins, or all? Obviously not all. Your statement, “it most certainly is to say that we no longer live in sin” is, to me, Roman Catholicism. As I understand it, concupiscence IS sin (Ap II 38). So while I agree with your point that active sin is a greater transgression than sinful thoughts and desires (and to be avoided, as Pastor Surburg’s article rightly states), I disagree that those same thoughts and desires are not sin themselves.

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    2. (continued, Part 2)

      I would never deny the new creation, the forgiven sinner working toward the new life, cooperating with the Spirit in their sanctification. And yet, we must stress the following:

      “we die unto sin and live unto righteousness, BEGINNING and GROWING here on earth”

      These are oftentimes weak, feeble, failing attempts, and most times impossible to see, much as one cannot sit and look at a tree and notice fruit growing. Personally, I have seen the Spirit enable me to cease gross sin in some areas of my life, but no matter how much I struggle with other sins and beg and pray for growth, I see little forward movement [although my wife (with whom I never cohabitated, by the way, nor with any other woman!) sees growth]. Moreover, while the active sin has ceased, the desire remains, and the battle is a daily one.

      I’ll not go into it, but of course we know when Luther uses the term Antinomians he is speaking about pastors (e.g. J. Agricola and, in a different manner, N. von Amsdorf) who felt the preaching of the Law had NO USE WHATSOEVER for the Christian, which is ridiculous and rightfully condemned.

      Finally, regarding the definition of repentance, I get this from Higher Things, 6 Apr 2016, Pastor J. Ehrhard:

      “Repentance. Two parts: contrition and faith. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruit of repentance (Augsburg Confession XII.6). Notice that good works and the fruits of faith are not, properly speaking, a part of repentance. Your work neither begins nor completes your repentance. Repentance is God's work. He works contrition; He works faith. And, therefore, good works--the fruit that repentance bears--are likewise not your works, but the work of God. He renews your heart and gives you the mind of Christ, who emptied Himself, became a servant, humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross--and God raised Him up to glory (Philippians 2:5-11).”

      And I got this response from another pastor with regards to the FC SD “definition” of repentance you cited:

      “I think you’re right in identifying the function of this section of the Formula. The authors are pointing out that “repentance” in various passages of scripture may mean different things. In some passages it includes faith. In other passages it does not. FC V intends to clarify what the law does and what the gospel does (see SD V: 1-2 and 27). The definition of “repentance” in the paragraphs you cite is approached through the lens of law and gospel. I think what drives the narrow definition you cite is the message of the law. Immediately after the passage you quote it reads “This knowledge comes from the Law,” suggesting that this narrow definition of repentance is a summary of what the law says. Then, the article switches to the gospel in a narrow sense as the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. That is, here repentance is being limited to what the law says and does. So, repentance seen as the function of the law corresponds to the law’s message to acknowledge sin and cease to sin, and the law’s work of producing contrition. Note that this is a narrow sense of “repentance.” In the Augsburg Confession Melanchthon’s definition is a broad one, including faith.”

      From this, I maintain a separation of the definition of repentance and the fruits. The Formula authors were simply defining the use of the term repentance more thoroughly, to differentiate between the narrow (seldom-used) and broad (often-used) uses of the word; these distinctions are absent from any other part of the Book of Concord. Regardless, I agree fruits must follow repentance, I’m just questioning how much and how long meets the criteria for repentance amongst men.

      Hope to hear a response. Peace.

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  6. "Roman Catholic priests perform weddings for cohabiting couples."

    Not in my parish. Cohabitors are told to separate and to stop fornicating.

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  7. Thanks Pastor Surburg. The Issues Etc. broadcast and this article are very good.

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