gospel

What in the World Should We Do?

One of the greatest Lutheran theologians of the 20th century was a German Lutheran named Hermann Sasse. He was one of the first German clergy to rise up in protest to Hitler. He was, ultimately, a pastor’s pastor. He spent years writing letters around the world to different pastors. These letters encouraged men in their ministries. These letters spurred discussion about the actions that the church-at-large should take in regards the continued proclamation of the Gospel. As I was reading one of these letters today, the following passage hit me. In regards to the question of what the church should do to stem its decline and seemingly certain death, Sasse gives this counsel:

The third thing, however, that we must learn anew is Luther’s invincible faith in the power of the means of grace. Whatever the Church still has and still does should not be minimized. But she does not live from mercy, or from political and social activity. She does not subsist on large numbers. When will the terrible superstition of the Christendom of our day cease that Jesus Christ is powerful only there where two or three million are gathered together in His name? When will we again comprehend that the Church lives by the means of grace of the pure preaching of the Gospel and by the divinely instituted administration of the Sacraments and by nothing else? And for no other reason than because Jesus Christ the Lord is present in His means of grace and builds His Church on earth, being even as powerful as ever before in the history of the Church – even if His power and glory, to speak as our Confessions do, are cruce tectum, hidden under the cross (Ap VII – VIII 18). Oh, what secret unbelief and what little faith we find in the Church that calls herself the Church of the sola fide! May God in His grace eradicate this unbelief and strengthen this weak faith in our souls and renew us through the great faith of the New Testament and the Reformation. That, and that alone, is the manner of overcoming the urgent need of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the greatest and weightiest crisis of her history.

~Hermann Sasse, 1948~

In a world where innovation is often valued over substance… in a world where fads seem to rule the day, may we always strive to keep the simplicity of the the Gospel in front of our eyes and the eyes of our people. May the certainty of the forgiveness of sins and the hope of faith drive all that we say, do, and know. May this not be an encouragement to laziness, but a reevaluation of where the church should always begin. Everything we do is to proclaim and lift up those certain places where God distributes His good gifts to us. It is the place where “for you” renews a sinner in sainthood. It is a place where a simple word can uplift the soul and conquer the prince of this world. Amen and Amen.

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Fridays in the Faith: The Absurdity of Staircase Theology

So, as with all great things, our “Fridays with the Fathers” has changed/been replaced with a new installment called “Fridays in the Faith”. The real reason for this was that I wanted to use selections from theologians that are not strictly considered “Fathers” historically speaking. I did not want to offend anyone out there with titles so the title has been changed. I welcome you to “Fridays in the Faith”. Because we have changed the title I can now give you a selection from a Lutheran scholar by the name of Gerhard Forde (pronounce “Furdey”). This selection is from his book Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-To-Earth Approach to the Gospel. This work focuses on the distinction between Law and Gospel, and how Christians have a propensity to make the Gospel into the Law. He focuses throughout the book on the idea of “going up the down staircase”. He explains that most people portray the Christian faith as something of a staircase or ladder where we are constantly trying to move up the rungs until we reach perfection. He exposes this idea as pervasive and absurd when one really thinks about it. Here are parts of a section entitled, “An Absurd Theology”.

 

And the trouble is that the theology fostered by the ladder is not very easy to believe because if one probes beneath the surface one soon uncovers a number of difficulties. In the first place, can we so lightly assume that God is one who can be “bought off” – even by Jesus? To be sure, that is a crude way of saying it, but that is what the theory amounts to in its most simplistic manifestations. If the questions shocks us, we ought to take it as an indication that we cannot really think that way about God at all.

In the second place, to introduce the question of payment in this way inevitably raises the old question of how we can be sure that Christ paid enough. Can the suffering and death of one man atone for the sins of the whole world? Perhaps this question is trite. But again, its  very triteness is an indication of the triteness of a theology which gives rise to such questions. The usual answer is to say that because he is divine, his sufferings have infinite worth. But that is only a further theory which complicates rather than solves matters. For instance, can the divine really suffer?….

In the third place, there is a troublesome question of forgiveness. If God has been paid, how can one say that he really forgives? If a debt is paid, one can hardly say that it is forgiven. Nor could one call God’s action mercy.

And so on. The theology of the ladder, when one reflects a bit, simply leads one into a series of difficulties, not to say absurdities. It introduces dimension of commercialism which destroys anything remotely resembling a gospel. We shall not approach an understanding of the theology of Martin Luther unless we begin to see that he was against such thinking…. For such thinking leads us inot a kind of speculation which is at best doubtful. We might say that it si another one of our attempts to go “up the down staircase”….

So we must come down to earth. We must learn to think and speak about the gospel, as far as it is possible, within the limits of what we actually know, within the limits of what actually happens to Jesus here on earth and to us when we are confronted by the story of Jesus. This I think is what Luther tried to do.

The idea that the Gospel has anything to do with what we can do or bring to the table is absurdity. It is also harmful to our doctrine to see God as one that just needs to be appeased for the sins that are committed. Sin and God are categorically opposed to each other. Where God exists, sin cannot. God cannot tolerate sin… even if it were to be “paid off”. Our sins are forgiven… removed from us. Our identity has been changed in Christ. God meets us where we are and changes us. That is at the heart of forgiveness. That is at the heart of our doctrine of justification. We are made right.

This does not mean that we cannot use ransom metaphors to talk about salvation. It does not mean that we cannot use the idea of being bought back with a price. It means that we cannot see faith as something that we use to make our way to God. Faith is something that God uses to come to us. That is a big difference.

 

Excerpts taken from Where God Meets Man: Luther’s Down-To-Earth Approach to the Gospel by Gerhard Forde, Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis 1972, pgs. 11-13.

The Enduring Presence of Christ

Matthew 28:18-20 says,

And Jesus came to them saying, “All authority in heaven and earth was given to me. Therefore as you are going, make disciples of all nations by baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and by teaching them to keep all things which I have commanded to you. And behold, I am with all the days until the end of the ages.

Whenever someone wants to make a case for missions or evangelism, they often want to appeal to the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday’s reading in the three-year lectionary. This section of Matthew has come to be known as “The Great Commission”. However, it has historically been known as the institution of Holy Baptism. Due to a general misunderstanding of the text and the influence of mainline Protestant theology, the emphasis has become: “Go! Do missions! Oh yeah… baptize and teach. If not, shame on you!” With some very easy context, we see that the emphasis of this passage is vastly different from the myriad agendas and programs that have adopted Matthew 28 as a battle cry.  I do not mean to be snarky or combative, but a different reading of this text gives hope to hopeless, grace to the fallen, and strength to the weak. It becomes not a matter of doing, but a matter of God’s working in our lives. Keep reading. Don’t get bored. This stuff is huge!

It is important to take in the entire context of the passage. The words of Jesus act as book ends. It is important to see the beginning and the end to understand the stuff in the middle. First, Jesus tells His disciples that all authority [or power] in heaven and earth has been given to Him. He ends the passage with a promise. He tells them, “BEHOLD! [Pay attention this is important] I am with you always to the very end of the ages.” In order to understand the thrust of this passage, we must understand that Jesus has power and dominion of ALL THINGS in heaven and on earth. We also must remember that He is ALWAYS with us…. forever… no really, FOREVER! We see Jesus with us nowhere clearer than in His Word and sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).

Once we have grasped the authority/power of  Jesus that is always with us, we can begin to see the rest of the passage. After Jesus reminds the disciples of His dominion and power, He tells them, “Therefore, as you are going, make disciples…” I know this is normally translated as a command or imperative [Go!]. But it is a participle. It carries a force of continuing action (going). After Jesus gives the one imperative in the passage [make disciples], He tells the disciples how to make disciples… by baptizing and teaching. In baptism, we see the gift of the Holy Spirit given to human beings. We see the creation of faith. We see the application of the promises of God and salvation. In baptism, we see God truly with His people. We see forgiveness. Just in case you forgot, BEHOLD!!! He is with you all the days until the very end of the age.


The very nature of Christ’s presence and power sends us out to live among others. While we live among others, we live as testimonies of those things which Christ is working in us (namely forgiveness and eternal life). The presence of Christ… His Word… Baptism… The Lord’s Supper… all of it sends out to our neighbors and the people in our lives. Christ offers them the same blessings and eternal life. As we go, we make disciples through Christ’s supreme authority and enduring presence in our lives. It is all about the Gospel. It is not about what we do. It is all about God’s work in the world.

Drop me a line in the comments if you have any comments or questions. This can be challenging but it makes all the difference in the world. Congrats for reading to the end!

TTFN… Pastor Niles