Lutheranism–and the Gospel–in depth

On the surface, Lutherans often seem placid and easy-going, solid folks who don’t make much of a stir.  And yet their theology consists of stormy clashes between Law and Gospel, glory vs. the Cross, the dark struggles of anfechtungen, the ecstasy of grace.   Lutheran spirituality centers on things as ordinary as going to church, going to work, and spending time with one’s family.  And yet, there is an unfathomable depth to what Lutherans see in the Cross, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Two Natures of Christ, and the Word of God.  Underlying the conservatism are teachings that are deeply radical.

Larry, frequent commenter on this blog, alerted me to this book by Steven D. Paulson entitled simply  Lutheran Theology.  It’s part of a series demonstrating the ways different traditions “do” theology.  But this is far from a dry textbook.  As Amazon reviewer Judith Guttman says, “If this book doesn’t knock your socks off, you aren’t paying attention. It is electrifying, exciting — am I talking about a theology book? Yes.”

Paulson says that we usually think of religion in terms of a “legal scheme,” a set of moral assumptions involving award and punishment with everybody getting what they deserve.  The Gospel just sets all of that aside.  So does God’s wrath, actually, which condemns completely and without proportion.  (He says that Luther as a monk goes far beyond the New Atheists in his resentment of a God whose wrath against sin seems so unfair.  The atheists react to God’s wrath by denying God’s existence, an act of wish-fulfillment Luther did not indulge in.)  But then God becomes flesh in Christ, who though innocent “becomes” sin and takes the wrath of God into Himself, giving us sinners the promise of salvation, which breaks into our lives through the voice of a preacher.  The “legal scheme” is completely set aside, though we–including many theologians in the history of Lutheranism–keep trying to re-introduce it, though since we cannot fulfill it of ourselves, we need constant recourse to Christ’s promises.  And  the consequent Christian life is also outside the “legal scheme,” having to do not so much with rules and score-keeping but with a free, spontaneous, and grace-filled love of neighbor.

As I read this book on my Kindle for Lent I found myself bookmarking virtually every page, so packed it was with illuminating insights.  Sample it yourself with the Amazon’s “Look inside” feature.  Another Amazon reviewer, David F. Sczepanski, was kind enough to type out some excerpts:

Lutheran theology begins perversely by advocating the destruction of all that is good, right, and beautiful in human life. It attacks the lowest and the highest goals of life, especially morality, no matter how sincere are its practitioners. Luther said the “sum and substance,” of Paul’s letter to the Romans “is to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh.” (1)

This is no ordinary philosophy about life, nor is it ordinary Christian religion. For thousands of years Christians routinely described life using an allegory of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt. They said life in general, and Christians in particular, were on an exodus out of vice into virtue. They were on a journey away from badness toward goodness. But Luther bluntly said faith is not a transition from vice to virtue, it is “the way from virtue to the grace of Christ.” (2)

`I forgive you’…Luther taught and demonstrated that these simple words give absolute, indubitable certainty, and no one is more dangerous than a person who is certain. The certainty was not based on human self-certainty; it was the opposite of that. It was the certainty of forgiveness because of what the Son of God did by taking the sins of the world upon himself and defeating them at the cross. The decisive cosmic battle of God against sin, death, and devil was already waged and won when Christ was raised from the dead to make a new kingdom of people who live with no law, nowhere to go, and nothing to accomplish. They were simply–free. (7)

God is always and ever God whether someone believes in him or not… God who is above time and space now enters the world with a steely determination…the sinner’s justification…so that the stories of God’s arrival to sinners make the great tales of Scripture (Abraham, David, Mary) and our own lives like Augustine’s Confessions. (55)

…the heart is not made for itself; it is made to go outside of itself and cling to that which speaks to the heart. Humans are therefore “hearing” creatures whose heart is always clinging to some word or other. (56

For Luther, fear…must be taught only so that it can be extinguished so that one will flee from this God [of wrath], not to him. We are to fear God who has no words (unpreached), and run from him to the place where he has given himself in words [of promise] — that is to the preacher. Only there do fear and wrath end in Christ incarnate as he gives himself to sinners… What is life like before a preacher arrives? Life is filled with voices that are “passing judgment” (Rom 2:1)…so that life comes under constant judgment. The judge could be outside one’s self like a father telling you to live up to your potential, or a written law that says, “Thou shalt not steal.” The judge can also be inside, called a conscience, holding itself to a standard of judgment. Life without a preacher is life with a knotted collection of voices that either accuse or excuse, but in either case end up used in the service of self-justification. Because judgment stands ever at hand…life becomes a search for an escape. (69)

Each time sins are forgiven it is experienced as a breakthrough, a miracle, a new and unheard of redemption that sets a person free — body and spirit — from an oppressive force. (89)

The crux of the issue in forgiveness is what happens to a sin which was real, actual, and loaded with consequences in many peoples’ lives… (90)

Sin is deep in the flesh; it is material, and it does not go away by wishing it so. It is not an idea that can be thought away, it is not a feeling that can be gotten over through great effort, it is a thing that corrodes life’s goods like debt; sin infects healthy life like a virus and it must be disposed of. (90)

Forgiveness first negates — by violently removing trust put in the wrong place. Then it puts faith in the proper place, which creates something new out of nothing… (90)

via Amazon.com: Lutheran Theology (Doing Theology )) (9780567550002): Steven D. Paulson: Books.

Cultural engagement requires the Sacrament

Peter Leithhart, a Reformed pastor and theologian, says that what evangelicals need if they are going to respond effectively to our time is to recover Holy Communion:

Evangelicals will be incapable of responding to the specific challenges of our time with any steadiness or effect until the Eucharist becomes the criterion of all Christian cultural thinking and the source from which all genuinely Christian cultural engagement springs.

The church is called to keep our Lord Jesus, his death and resurrection, as the focal point of worship, witness, service, and mission. How do we protect ourselves from darting off after each fresh fad? Jesus didn’t think Christ-centered preaching would be enough. He left his church not only a gospel to preach, but rites of water, bread, and wine to practice. It’s difficult to forget Christ and his cross when we proclaim his death in the breaking of bread at the climax of every week’s worship. When the Sign seals the Word, the church becomes a communion of martyrs ready to bear the cross because they have consumed the cross. . . .

Sharing the Supper forges us into a corporate body that participates in Christ through the Spirit. By the Spirit, we become what we receive: “We are one body because we partake of one loaf” (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). In practice, Evangelicals don’t partake, and so we aren’t a body. When we do partake, we don’t partake together. We aren’t a body with many members so much as an aggregation of individuals. There’s little point in asking what “message” the “church” needs to proclaim unless we can speak of a church with something resembling a message.

In addition to the ecclesial, the political consequences of our Eucharistic neglect are almost beyond calculation. The great French Catholic Henri de Lubac traced in intricate detail how the sacredness of the table slowly migrated first to consecrate the institutional church and then to sanctify the state. Evangelicals are intensely protective of the “sanctity” of the flag, but many would be puzzled at the classic Eucharistic announcement, “Holy things for holy people.” Lacking a rightly ordered Supper, modern Christians wrap nationalism in a veil of sanctity, with sometimes-horrific results. In the U.S., Christians are frequently urged to give political support to this or that variation of Americanism. There is no genuinely Christian alternative because the church has no defined public shape with the resilience to withstand the political forces that press in on us.

As it is in politics, so is it in economics. Because we don’t take our bearings from the table, the growing debate among Evangelicals about how to constitute a just economy lists awkwardly from hedonism to asceticism and back. The Supper ritualizes a Christian vision of production and distribution as it catches up our economics into the economy of God. By the Spirit, bread and wine, products of human labor, become vehicles for communion with Christ.

As the Russian Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann pointed out long ago, the Supper discloses the purpose and destiny of all creation. Not only this bread, but all bread, all products of human work, can be means of fellowship with God and one another. Further, we receive these products of human labor, with thanks; as a gift of God. Thus the table discloses the mystery of the creature’s participation in the Creator’s creativity, and this participation produces goods that are ours only as gifts received, goods to be shared and enjoyed in communion.

The Supper closes the gap between joy in creation and pious devotion to God. At the table, delight in the taste of bread and the tang of wine is delight in God, though this double delight is not unique to this meal. Every meal and every moment, every encounter and every project burst with the promise of communion with God. This world, Schmemann said, is the matter of God’s kingdom.

Evangelicals move away to Constantinople or Rome at an alarming rate, often because they lose hope of finding even a glimmer of liturgical piety in Evangelical churches. They’re hungry, and they believe they have found where the banquet is happening. Luther and Calvin would be aghast, for in their eyes the Reformation was an effort to restore priestly food to all of God’s priests as well as an effort to recover the gospel of grace.

All the cultural and political challenges that Evangelicals face come back to the Supper. It’s important to do it right, but it’s more important to do it and to do it together. Until we do, most of our cultural chatter will continue to glance harmlessly off our targets. Until we do, Evangelicals will flop and flounder with every cultural wind and wave.

via Do This | First Things.

As a Lutheran, I appreciate this call to recover a spirituality centered in the Sacrament.  (And, I would add, evangelicals looking for this in Rome or Constantinople would do well to first see it closer to home in Wittenberg, where they would find that they wouldn’t have to cease being evangelicals in order to be sacramental.)  I know some Calvinists are being accused in their circle of crypto-Lutheranism.  But is this particular view of the Sacrament, however “high” it seems and for all of its presence talk, all that Lutheran?  Amidst all of the talk of identifying the church and engaging the culture and reforming the economy, where is the “given for you for the remission of all of your sins”?  Or could these other benefits become ancillary effects?

Christmas in Lent

Last Sunday was not only the 5th Sunday of Lent; it fell on March 25.  That’s nine months before Christmas.  Thus it’s Annunciation Day.   So just as Lent ramps up into the greater intensity of “Passiontide,” just before Holy Week, we reflect on what we normally associate with Christmas, marking the day that the angel appeared to Mary and she conceived the Son of God.

Our pastor, Rev. Douthwaite, preached a powerful sermon on the occasion, tying together Christ’s Incarnation and His Passion.  Read it all, but here is a sample:

And so to do what you and I could not do, the Son of God became like us in every way. He didn’t just come and assume a full-grown, 30 year old, adult body, but began as a single cell, just like us. He grew in the womb just like us, and was born just like us. He was an infant and then a toddler, a child and then a teenager, and finally an adult, just like us. Except without sin. And so through every stage of life, He offered to God that service that we do not – theologians call it His active obedience – a perfect life, of perfect love, of perfectly reflecting the image of God. A life of mercy and compassion, using His eyes, ears, mouth, hands, mind, and heart – all His body, all His being, in true service to God. And having bound Himself to us in every stage of life, that no matter how old or young you are, pre-born, newborn, or long ago born, Jesus has fulfilled the desire of His Father for you; He fulfilled what all of us, bound in sin, are unable to do. . . .

And so in the body prepared for Him and given this day as it began to grow and develop in the womb of the virgin, He lived our life and died our death. For perfect in every way, He was able to bear not His own sins, but our sins and the sins of the whole world – from the beginning of time to the end of time – on the cross, to atone for them; to be the true sacrifice and offering for them. He became homeless for us homeless and dead for us dead, that we might have His home and rise from death in His life. To live . . . how does the Small Catechism put it? To live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

And that’s the life you have now begun to live – a life of righteousness and purity. A life where the words of Mary, let it be to me according to your Word, have begun to be fulfilled in you. For when you were baptized, the Word of God came to you and conceived a new life in you, that by water and the Word, physical and spiritual, body and soul, you live a new life. An image of God life. A life of faith and love. No longer the old faith-in-yourself and loving-yourself life, and expecting others to do the same; but now a life of faith toward God and love towards others. As the One who did that perfectly, Jesus, now lives in you. As that life now grows and matures in you, as you drink the living water of God’s Word and Spirit and forgiveness; as you eat the food He has provided to nourish and sustain you – His very body and blood. To sanctify you through the body and blood Jesus offered for you.

And so now those words – let it be to me according to your Word – are not just the words spoken by Mary, but words spoken by you. Words of faith.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Lent 5 Sermon.

Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me

St. Patrick’s Day is Saturday–a day to honor all missionaries, including the missionaries to the European tribes (like St. Patrick to the Irish, St. Boniface to the Germans, St. Augustine to the English, etc.).  (Those of us of European descent need to remember that our ancestors too were tribal pagan peoples who were brought to faith through missionaries.)

To mark the day and what St. Patrick taught, I offer you a poem/hymn/prayer attributed to him, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”  (Some people question the attribution, saying it was written in the 9th century, not the 5th, when St. Patrick was alive.  But the form of the work reflects a Druid incantation for protection, and I’m pretty sure the Druids were gone by the 9th century, whereas they were the ones St. Patrick converted.)

At any rate, this is a wonderful meditation.  (The link will play the haunting melody that hymnwriters have given it.)

I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

via St. Patrick’s Breastplate.

HT:  Zach Simmons

If you died tonight, do you know you would go to heaven? Or do you not care?

“If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure that you would go to Heaven?”  That question, or some variation, has started thousands of evangelism conversations and is the opening line for many evangelism programs (especially “Evangelism Explosion” started by D. James Kennedy).  The conversation then goes on to “how you know,” and it exposes people who trust in their good works, or perhaps are just uncertain, whereupon the evangelist can point to the finished work of Christ and to the free salvation He promises.

Today, though, according to a survey by the Southern Baptist publisher LifeWay, over half of Americans never wonder about that question.  A Christianity Today feature calls this “The Evangelistic Question That Died,” but I’m not so sure that the evidence is that people as a whole are no longer concerned about their eternal destiny.

The breakdown of the survey results is telling:  67% of Americans who never attend worship services have never wondered about whether or not they will go to Heaven.  (Perhaps the general consensus today is that everyone enters some kind of white-light paradise–or that if we just die, that death isn’t all that bad–so worrying about the prospect of going to Hell is no longer as much of  an issue as it once was.  Since those who don’t go to church are the main targets for evangelism efforts, maybe the question is not the best evangelism-starter.)

Meanwhile, 57% of “born-again or evangelical” Protestants also never ask the question.  (But perhaps this is because they have an assurance of salvation. Then again, 43% of them do wonder if they will make it to Heaven, so maybe they don’t have as much assurance from the Gospel that they should have.)  Interestingly, only 34% of non-Evangelical Protestants–presumably those from the more liberal mainline church bodies–never ask the question.  So 66% of “liberals” do worry about their salvation, so perhaps might be open to the conversation!

Significantly, only 36% of those aged 18-29 never wonder if they will go to Heaven, which means that, despite laments about young people leaving the church, this is an issue for nearly two-thirds of them (64%).

The regional breakdowns are also interesting.  In the so-called Bible Belt of the South, 50% of the population never wonder if they will go to Heaven.  (Again, this probably includes both secularists and Christians who know they will get there.)  In the lesser-churched West, the percentage of those who never ask that question is 52%.  In the Midwest, it’s 45%, which means that a majority of 55% do wonder.  And in the ostensibly secular Northeast, supposedly the most secular part of the country, only 31% never ask that question.  Over two-thirds of the population, including New Yorkers and New Englanders, 69%, the largest percentage surveyed, do wonder about their eternal destiny.

 

The Evangelistic Question That Died | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

I’ve blogged about Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham and the successor to D. James Kennedy as pastor of the influential Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  In the course of some struggles over his ministry, he came to a deeper understanding of the Gospel with the help of some Lutheran writers (e.g., C. F. W. Walther, Bo Giertz, Gerhard Forde, Hal Senkbeil, Rod Rosenbladt).  He has written a book about his experience and his new liberating realization that he does not have to add anything to what Christ has done for him.  The book is entitled Jesus + Nothing = Everything.

No, he doesn’t become a Lutheran.  He remains a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America. That’s not the point.  But he demonstrates what I have been contending, that we Lutherans in our theology have some great treasures that other Christians are searching for and yearning for.  We tend to keep to ourselves, though, and mainly just talk to each other, which means that our theological and spiritual heritage is little known in American Christianity, which is split between evangelicals and catholics, Calvinists and Arminians, fundamentalists and mainliners, and other dichotomies which Lutheranism reconciles.  Anyway, Lutherans would do well to see the excitement with which Rev. Tchividjian discovers and seizes upon Biblical insights that are commonplaces among Lutherans, to the point that they sometimes take them for granted.  (The book is resonating with other evangelicals.  Christianity Today named it one of the top books of 2012.)

He approached me–he liked my book Spirituality of the Cross:  The Way of the First Evangelicals–to write a blurb about his book, which I was glad to do.  Here is what I said about it.   I’ll add some other blurbs that capture the book’s flavor and how it’s being received:

“Many Christians today assume that the gospel just has to do with conversion, for way back when they first came to faith. They have lost the sense, well known to Christians of the past, that the gospel is for every moment of their lives. As a result, they often fall into a moralism that can be, as this book shows, just as idolatrous, self-focused, and godless as immorality. This book shows how the good news of free forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ is the driving energy that makes the Christian life possible. Pastor Tchividjian tells about how he himself discovered the full magnitude of God’s grace in the midst of difficult times in his own ministry. He does so in a way that will bring relief, exhilaration, and freedom to struggling Christians.”
—Gene Edward Veith Jr., provost, professor of Literature, Patrick Henry College; director, Cranach Institute, Concordia Theological Seminary; columnist; author

“Tullian Tchividjian knows, by biblical study and personal experience, that the greatest dangers to the church exist inside the church not outside and the greatest of these dangers is the subtle, deceptive, and seductive self-reliance and self-sufficiency of legalism. Perhaps the greatest contribution of this book is its page after page plea to the church not to be afraid of the glorious provisions and freedoms of the grace of Jesus.”
—Paul David Tripp, President, Paul Tripp Ministries; author, What Did You Expect?: Redeeming the Realities of Marriage

“In a powerful, concise, and popular style, Tchividjian announces, explicates, defends, and contrasts the gratuitous gospel of Christ’s person and work with the oft-misheld conviction of us sinners that, if we are somehow to be justified, it will have to be a matter of ‘making up for’ our offenses and of inward improvement. Chapter-by-chapter he argues that God’s saving plan is one of grace and not one of improvement. Filled with illustrations from his life as a pastor, this is no unapproachable, academic tome. But neither, thank God, is it today’s ‘Evangelical silly!’ Tchividjian wrestles openly with demons and their central lie in order that we truly ‘get’ what the Bible is really about. From every point on the compass, he contrasts ‘moral renovation’ with a free, one-sided rescue drenched in the blood of Jesus. Good news for everyone—but especially for Christians who are worn out by trying the other way, believing the lie, somehow knowing renovation isn’t working but knowing nowhere else to turn. Tchividjian is out to convince his reader that justification before God really is pure gift, is free, is by grace and through faith in Christ. . . sola!”
—Rod Rosenbladt, professor of theology, Concordia University

“Brace yourself for a gospel tornado! Tullian speaks from the heart to the heart, reclaiming the ‘good’ part of the good news in a bold and liberating fashion. To those suffering under the gravitational pull of internal as well as external legalism (a/k/a everyone), Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything represents the only lifeline there is—the mind-blowing, present-tense freedom of God’s justifying grace. No ‘if’s, ‘and’s or ‘but’s here, just the enlivening and relieving Word in all its profundity, with powerful illustrations to spare. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll read it over and over and over again (of course, you don’t have to)!”
—David Zahl, Director, Mockingbird Ministries; editor of The Mockingbird Blog www.mbird.com


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