Thanks to Pastor Ned Moerbe, who cited this quotation from Paul Gerhardt by way of Oswald Bayer in a sermon that he preached:
In his last will and testament Paul Gerhardt reminds his only son, still living after all his other children had died: “Do good to people, even if they cannot pay you back because….” The reader expects that the sentence will continue with: “God will repay you.” However, Paul Gerhardt frustrates that expectation by continuing: “…because for what human beings cannot repay, the Creator of heaven and earth has already repaid long ago when he created you, when he gave you his only Son, and when he accepted and received you in holy baptism as his child and heir.” (“Justification as Basis and Boundary for Theology,” Lutheran Quarterly 15 [Autumn 2001]: 276.)
God has already rewarded us! Our very creation–that is, the very fact that we exist–is a gift of God. And, when we realize this by faith, it really is a motivation to please Him by doing good. Add in God’s gift of His only Son. Add in God’s acceptance of us in baptism. We owe God an infinite debt, which we can never repay. But, in this light, how can we refuse to do good to someone else who can never repay what we do?
Furthermore, the blessing that awaits us when we enter eternal life has already started! It pre-dates us, as it were! God’s overwhelming grace isn’t a reward for our good works. Rather, His grace makes us want to do them.
This idea of existence, on its most basic level, as God’s gift is a very profound one. I have often marveled at the sheer fact that I exist. And that sense of wonder has indeed led to a sense of God and His goodness.
Which brings us back to Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676). He lived a life of suffering–the hardships of the Thirty Years’ War, the death of his children, problems with his vocation as a pastor. He had difficulty getting a call to a congregation, and when he did–though becoming a beloved pastor and an unusually winsome defender of the faith–he was removed from his office for his theological faithfulness.
But he continued to praise God for His blessings. At the same time, the hardships that he endured certainly made him a better pastor and made him into a great artist.
Gerhardt is considered Germany’s greatest hymn writer. His most famous hymn is probably “Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” He also wrote “Awake, My Heart, with Gladness,” “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” “Why Should Cross and Trial Grieve Me?” and many, many more. They are all spiritually rich, with depth upon depth, and unutterably beautiful. (Go to the cyberhymnal site for a listing of his compositions, which includes lyrics and audio files of his melodies.)
Take a look too at the complete text of Gerhardt’s testimony to his son.
Painting of Paul Gerhardt, 1844 ( Gemälde, Geschenk von Friedrich Wilhelm IV. zur Einweihung der Paul-Gerhardt-Kapelle), Signatur U (Paul-Gerhardt-Haus, Gräfenhainichen) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons