A key named “Promise”

Matthew Block, editor of the Canadian Lutheran, makes good use of classic literature to demonstrate how despair is countered by the promises of God:

In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a spiritual epidemic spread across England, infecting Christians with the belief that God would not forgive them. They desperately wanted to be saved, but they believed they had been shut out from grace. This condition—”despair,” as it was called—robbed people of hope and drove many to commit suicide.

You see people wrestling with this issue in the literature of the day—in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene and the religious poetry of the Anglican priest and poet John Donne, for example. But perhaps we see it most clearly in John Bunyan’s classic The Pilgrim’s Progress. Here the character Christian is taken prisoner by Giant Despair, thrown into a dungeon, beaten daily, and goaded to take his own life—something he would, in fact, do if his friend Hopeful wasn’t there to keep him from self-harm.

This last tale is particularly moving because we know Bunyan himself struggled with despair. In his spiritual autobiography, he writes how, for two years, he suffered under the belief his sins were unforgivable. The Scriptures offered no relief; all he read was God’s anger at and condemnation of sin. For two years, Bunyan perceived nothing but “damnation, and expectation of damnation.”

But of course, John Bunyan did not stay forever in despair. The cure finally came when he learned to distinguish Law from Gospel. Bunyan learned at least some of this from Martin Luther himself, whose Commentary on Galatians happened to come into his hands. It was, Bunyan says, “most fit for a wounded conscience”—most fit, that is, for a conscience down in despair. So taken by the book was he that Bunyan would later say he counted it second only to the Scriptures themselves.

What Luther taught and what Bunyan had come to believe was that the Gospel offers the only answer to the accusations of the Law. Yes, the Law shows us our sin. Yes, we must accept the testimony of Scripture that we are sinful people deserving death and hell. But the Gospel, not the Law, gets the final word. The Good News is that Christ bore our sins on the cross. His death and resurrection set us free from the guilt of sin!

It was this Gospel that finally won Bunyan from despair. The Gospel prodded constantly at his heart, calming his fears. He recalls: “Scripture, in these flying fits would call as running after me, ‘I have blotted out as a thick cloud thy transgressions, and as a cloud thy sins. Return unto me for I have redeemed thee’ (Isaiah 44:22).”

Bunyan could find no cure for despair in himself. No, the cure could only be found in the promises of Christ—in the Gospel. And so it is that, in The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian only escapes Giant Despair when he remembers he carries a key in his bosom. The key’s name is “Promise,” and it opens the prison doors.

Despair was not Bunyan’s problem alone. It existed long before Bunyan, and it continues to plague people long since. We see glimpses of it in ourselves when we worry that we have finally sinned too much. When we fear our faith is not strong enough to save. When we’ve let God down one too many times. But just as it did with Bunyan, Scripture comes running after us in these moments, reminding us of the promises of Christ. The Holy Spirit is at work in the Word, drawing us ever to Himself, opening our hearts to believe the promises of God.

via Canadian Lutheran Online » Blog Archive » A key named “Promise”.

Rev. Block goes on to explain how the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper can help people out of the despair that comes from thinking their sins are unforgivable.

Notice:  John Bunyan was a Baptist who was helped by Luther.

Luther the detective: Getting your hands dirty

Luther is the acclaimed British crime drama now available to Americans on BBC America.  Here is the Wikipedia description of John Luther, played by Golden-Globe winner Idris Elba:

He is obsessive, possessed, and sometimes dangerous in the violence of his fixations. But Luther has paid a heavy price for his dedication; he has never been able to prevent himself from being consumed by the darkness of the crimes with which he deals. For Luther, the job always comes first. His dedication is a curse and a blessing, both for him and those close to him.

Sound like any other Luther you know?  Sound like any doctrine you know?  Anyway, as we said yesterday, Jordan Ballor has an article in Cardus arguing that the series is, in fact, Lutheran.  I’ll let him tell you about a story line:

John Luther’s willingness to suffer, to be despised, and even to be killed for the sake of others is manifest throughout the series. In a line of work that is characterized by the daily risk of life and limb, the risks Luther takes on a regular basis are foolhardy, at best. When Jenny Jones’s mother, with whom Luther has a complicated history, comes calling, Luther finds himself unable to follow his safer judgment and remain uninvolved. He feels responsible in some way for the plight of Jenny, who after her father’s death has become addicted to drugs and a victim (“actress” seems like the wrong word) in the pornography business.

Luther ventures onto the set just as filming is about to begin and (to put it delicately) “removes” Jenny from the situation. He follows through and delivers Jenny to her mother, and the task he had been asked to complete has been finished. But everything is not well. Jenny knows that living with her mother will not be healthy. She knows she needs help and she pleads with John to help her. Again, despite his “better” judgment, Luther cannot resist helping. He cannot bring himself to simply tell her, “Go and sin no more,” and leave it at that. John Luther is thus in a very real way a natural lawman. His innate sense of justice and of obligation is so deep that he simply cannot stand by and leave broken things alone. He has to try to help, even if it means risking his reputation, his livelihood, and indeed his life.

He ends up risking all three in Jenny’s case. Those who run the porn ring have orchestrated the whole arrangement in order to get Luther into a position where he is exposed and compromised. At one point the gangsters nail Luther’s hand to a table: Luther is literally pierced for Jenny’s transgressions. He has put himself in this position willingly, knowing what it might cost. In the process, the gangsters do end up getting some leverage on Luther so that he has to appear to do their bidding, at least for a time.

To Luther’s colleagues, Luther seems to have been compromised. When DS Erin Gray asks Luther’s friend and protégë Justin Ripley about Luther’s suspicious actions, Justin expresses full, even perhaps credulous, faith in Luther’s fidelity. “There’s loyalty, and there’s naivety,” says Gray. Justin responds, “There’s a difference between getting your hands dirty and being dirty.” Justin knows Luther, and he knows that Luther will risk getting his hands dirty in order to do what he feels morally obligated to do. Likewise Justin doesn’t hesitate to get his own hands dirty to protect Luther. Luther’s brand of responsible action is contagious, it seems.

In this difference between “getting your hands dirty and being dirty,” we have a seminal expression of Bonhoeffer’s idea of vicarious representative action and Luther’s idea of moral ambiguity. We don’t always know when the line is crossed and we become dirty. But getting dirty, and even being dirty, is a risk we are bound to take, a risk we are bound to take in trust that it is not on the basis of our clean hands but rather on the redemptive work of Jesus that we might be justified. Jesus, in fact, is the exemplar of this vicarious representative action, the scapegoat of the Old Testament, who takes on the sins of others. As the Apostle Paul writes, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV). Because of Christ’s atoning work, we are free to risk getting our hands dirty.

John Luther is a deeply troubled man. We get no real insight into his spiritual life, and he begins the second series of episodes on the verge of suicide. There is likewise little overt religiosity in Luther. But in the vicarious representative action of the natural lawman DCI John Luther on behalf of others, we see a broken and fragmentary expression of common grace, God’s preserving work in the world.

The series is on Netflix–instant play!  So I’ve seen the first couple of episodes.  Just as crime drama–in the genre of police procedural–the show is excellent.   It has everything you might like in Law & Order, NCIS, etc.–action, suspense, intriguing mysteries, ingenious police work–but it’s grittier, more textured, and better written.

I had assumed that the theology Jordan Ballor sees in the series is unintentional, as when an honest work of art  finds truth, which by its nature is going to be consistent with the truth of Scripture.  But the show is full of explicit Christian–yea, Lutheran–language:  talk about evil,  (sinful) human nature, nothingness, Bible quotations (“why do the wicked prosper?”), the devil, guilt, “your calling.”  Then there is the character’s name and business such as nailing his hand to the wall.  The creator of the show knows some theology.

The character of John Luther is complex and compelling.  He’s something of a rogue cop (think the protagonist of The Shield but more sympathetic), brilliant but tormented.  His estranged wife who left him for another man, which tortures Luther, defends his preoccupations with “life and love.”  This is not romantic love or the kind of love that solves all your problems.  This is love that multiplies your problems and makes them worse.  But love is absolutely necessary.  At one point,  Luther identifies who the murderer is because when everyone else yawns, but she doesn’t.  Being able to resist the contagious yawn, he says, means this person has no empathy, the sign of someone who could kill without mercy.  (And  that woman, Alice, what a piece of work!  Though the unwillingness to yawn is not evidence that will stand up in court, he knows she did it, and she knows he knows.  They get together to torment each other and discuss medieval philosophy.  The shows’ villains are as complicated as they are chilling.)  John Luther,  struggles with the conflict between his compassion and his own lawlessness (when a serial killer is hanging on for dear life, he is not above stomping his fingers).  He is simultaneously a saint and a sinner, but he doesn’t understand that yet.  He is Brother Martin before his conversion.  Sherlock Holmes is characterized by logical deductions; Adrian Monk by obsessive compulsive disorder.  John Luther is characterized by Anfechtungen.

 

Not knowing if you are a Christian

Picking up on some earlier discussion, I came across this list of ways that a person can know whether or not they have been truly saved.  They are from a book by Jim Wilson entitled (ironically, it seems to me) Assurance of Salvation:

1. The Holy Spirit seals, guarantees, and assures us (1 Jn. 4:13, Rom. 8:16-17, Eph. 1:13-14, 2 Cor. 5:5, 1 Cor. 2:11-16).

2. Change of Character: read the lists of the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:19-25. Which list characterizes you? Jesus saves out of the first list into the second.

3. Confessing Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3, Rom. 10:9-10, Lk. 6:45).

4. Obedience: People who are saved obey Jesus (1 Jn. 3:6, 3:9-10, 5:18, 2:3).

5. Discipline: If you are getting away with disobedience, you are not a child of God. If you are being disciplined, pay attention and repent (Heb. 12:5-11).

6. Loving Christians: People who have passed from death to life love the brothers and it’s obvious to everyone (1 Jn. 3:14, Jn. 13:34-35).

7. Loving Enemies: Sinners can act with civility; saints are enabled to imitate their Father in heaven (Lk. 6:27-36).

8. Jesus said so: If you hear the word of Jesus and believe in Him, then you have eternal life, you have crossed from death to life (Jn. 5:24).

via Assurances of Salvation | Having Two Legs.

The poster, Toby Sumpter, to his credit, adds Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to the list, but Heaven help us!   People aren’t sure whether or not they are Christians?   It’s not enough to, you know, have faith in Jesus?

I realize that Christians who don’t think the sacraments do anything have to make check -off lists, but how horrible!   I want to ask those who go by a list like this, how are you doing with these?  Has your character been changed enough?  How’s your discipline? How are you getting along with your fellow Christians?  How are you getting along with your enemies?

Doesn’t this circle right back to salvation by works?  Can this formula for attaining “assurance” do anything but drive an honest Christian to despair?

That can only be a good thing if it drives you to the Cross of Jesus Christ, who has done all of this for you!

The problem with such exercises is that they end up DESTROYING faith, whereas faith is exactly what those who are struggling with such questions need.  That is to say, MORE trust, confidence, assurance in the Gospel of what Christ has freely done for them.

TGTBL

That God is love

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, the traditional festival–now that Ascension and Pentecost are over–to honor and contemplate the one God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As we confess in the Athanasian Creed that is customarily confessed on that Sunday, God Himself is a unity of distinct persons.

That is to say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8).  Love is a unity of distinct persons.  The doctrine of the Trinity shows how love is inherent in the very essence of the Godhead.

Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis’s friend, suggested that just as there are heresies in regards to the being of God, there are related heresies of love.  Some heretics affirm the unity of God and deny the distinctness of the Persons.  Similarly, in relationships, some, in the name of love, demand utter conformity, often manifesting itself in one of the lovers dominating or even obliterating the other person.  There is unity in the relationship, but no distinct persons.  This is heretical love.

Other  theological heretics teach the separateness of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, denying their essential unity.  Similarly, in relationships, sometimes the people in them go completely in their separate ways.  The persons are affirmed, but not the unity that love needs.

Only God, of course, gets love exactly right.  And, indeed, His love is not just self-contained in the Godhead, but it extends to us.  And He doesn’t obliterate our persons, even as He brings us into a unity with Himself, through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son.  May God’s love shape all of our loves!

 

 

The importance of Christ’s Ascension

Yesterday was Ascension Day, marking the resurrected Christ’s return to His Father.  Pastor Reeder quotes the classic Bible scholar Paul E. Kretzmann on what the Ascension means:

“By His exaltation and ascension the Son of Man, also according to His human body, has entered into the full and unlimited use of His divine omnipresence. His gracious presence is therefore assured to His congregation on earth. He is now nearer to His believers than He was to His disciples in the days of His flesh.

He is now sitting at the right hand of His heavenly Father. As our Brother He has assumed the full use of the divine power and majesty. He reigns with omnipotence over all things, but especially also over His Church. God has put all things under His feet, and has given Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all, Eph. 1, 22. 23.

By His Word and Sacrament He gathers unto Himself a congregation and Church upon earth. He works in and with His servants; He governs in the midst of His enemies. He preserves and protects His Church against all the enmity of the hostile world and against the very portals of hell. And His intercession before His heavenly Father makes our salvation a certainty, Rom. 8, 34.”

via On the Lord’s Ascension « Pastor Reeder’s Blog.

Strangely, the Reformed use the Ascension as an argument against the presence of Christ in the sacrament.  (“Jesus isn’t here any more.  He’s in Heaven.”)  But Lutherans use the Ascension as an argument for the Real Presence, since now the Son of God, having taken His place in the Godhead, is omnipresent.

The two trees

Pastor Douthwaite, preaching from John 15:9-17 and 1 John 5:1-8:

And speaking of Adam, he’s another one God gave but a single command to, remember? Just: don’t eat from this one tree. Just this one! You can eat from all the others: apples, oranges, pears, pomagranites, figs, cherries, you name it – they’re all yours to eat and enjoy. Just not this one, please. Reserve this one for me.

Now, the scriptures don’t say what kind of fruit was on that tree. Was it a different fruit than all the others? Unique and special and one-of-a-kind, that God was holding back from Adam? I don’t think so. I think it was just one of many, let’s say, fig trees. So by not eating it, Adam isn’t missing out on anything. He’s not deprived of anything. He’s simply loving God by keeping, by honoring, this one request.

But he couldn’t do it. Eve was deceived; Adam did it willfully. Because he couldn’t have it, it was the tree he desired most of all. And the more time goes on, the harder it gets. For that’s the way of it with sin. We want what we can’t, or shouldn’t, have, or what has not been given to us. And taking it, going after it, or desiring it hurts our love for one another. Because we’re thinking of me, not them. Helping me, not them. Loving me, not them. And then Jesus’ command, His request: Love one another, which sounds so simple, becomes: what about me? And then it’s all about me, which is tyranny of the worst kind. It’s what Luther wrote of in the hymn we sang today (LSB #556, v. 2): Fast bound in satan’s chains I lay. When it’s all about me, what’s all about me, are chains. The chains of sin and death.

But Jesus said: These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. Jesus is not imposing on us. He wants us to have joy. But when we love only ourselves there is not this joy, not a joy that lasts anyway. But one that caves to the insatiable desire for more. For that one tree of which God said: please, no.

So what’s a God to do? Give us more rules, more laws, more commandments? That’s what some think, but that’s doesn’t work. For how you doing with that one: Love one another? If we can’t even keep one, how we gonna keep more? No, more rules, more laws, more commandments is the way of servants and slaves. But do you remember what Jesus said today instead? No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.

Friends, not slaves. Friends, not servants. Friends, to whom Jesus has revealed a better way, telling us not more that we have to do, but what He has come to do. That that one tree that Adam and all of us cannot resist, is now a one tree that Jesus cannot resist. But for Jesus it is not in sin, but in love. For that one tree that He cannot resist is the tree of the cross. For greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus is that someone, who has come to lay down His life for you. For what comes welling up from within His heart is not sin, but love. And so He comes to not only show us, but give us, the love we need. Calling us friends – not because we deserve it, ‘cuz we most certainly don’t! And calling us friends not because He’s describing us, but because that’s what He’s naming us; that’s what He’s making us, that’s what He’s doing in us. For what God calls something, that’s what it is. God’s Word does what it says. We did not choose Him, He chose us. Or in other words, we’re not His friends because of what we do – we’re His friends because of what He did. Because of His tree. Because of the cross.

That just as one tree made us all sinners, so one tree would make us all righteous again. As one tree made us slaves to sin, so one tree would set us free. As one tree brought death into the world, so one tree would bring life to the world.

via St. Athanasius Lutheran Church: Easter 6 Sermon.

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