Archive for March, 2019

Lent, Repent, and Achievement

Luther lectured on the book of Galatians in 1531. Notes were taken of his lectures by various individuals, and these were used to publish a commentary on Galatians by Luther in 1535. The extensive notes taken by Georg Rörer were so good that his have been included in the Weimar Edition of Luther’s works along with the published commentary from 1535. Imagine not only hearing Luther lecture, but then having your notes published alongside his commentary. It must have been quite an honour.

Anyway, Rörer records Luther making some rather interesting comments about religion and religions. Here are two examples:

“There is no difference between a Jew, Papist, Turk. Of course, the rites are diverse, but it is the same heart and thoughts … because it is as follows: if I do thus, God will be merciful to me. It is the same passion of all men in their souls (hearts), [but] there is no middle way between the knowledge of Christ and human activity. Thereafter, it doesn’t matter, whether one is a Papist, Turk, Jew, one faith is as the other. For that reason, they are very much fools, because they fight each other on account of religion.” (WA 40, 1; 603-604,3).

“Every religion is idolatry, and whoever is more prayerful, more spiritual, … this is more pestilent that one averts one’s gaze (eye) from faith in Christ and what is his … Outside of Christ all the religions are idols.” (WA 40, 2: 110,6-111,1)

In short, Luther is saying that all religions are based on the law, i.e. following rules to gain God’s favour, as cited above, “If I do thus, God will be merciful to me.” Over against vain human efforts to gain God’s grace stands Jesus Christ and his gift of salvation given to all sinful human beings. This gift cannot be not earned or achieved. Instead, by God’s grace alone it is received by faith alone. That Jesus has won this gift for us sinners on the cross and in the resurrection and that Jesus has given this gift to us “for free” is unbelievably “good news.” In English, the theological word for good news” is “gospel.”

For Luther, the law and the gospel are diametrically opposed. As we all know through our own experience, our best efforts to fulfil the commandments in the Bible, i.e. the law, fail miserably. Furthermore, when we do manage to fulfil some of them, our sin calls us to bask in the glory of our achievements. In other words, our “good works” are inevitably undermined by the sins of pride and self-righteousness. Round and round and round we go … Maybe that is why St. Augustine defined sin as being turned in on ourselves (incuravatus in se).

That, however, is only the half of it. Luther goes on to declare that all religions outside of Christ are idols. Those are strong words, but the theology behind them is really quite simple. If one’s religion requires one to be busy trying to achieve salvation by winning God’s favour, and if the one true God has given sinners salvation as a gift through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then the gods which demand fulfilment of the law are not truly God. Such gods reveal themselves to be what all false gods are, namely idols.
In our modern, ecumenical, and politically correct age, people who are “religious” frequently succumb to the notion that the different religions offer different ways to get to the one God. Luther claims the opposite. All religions lead to false gods, to idols. Consequently, all religions lead their adherents not only away from the one true God but through their various religious practices lead their adherents to a dead end. For Luther, religion is a diabolical road to nowhere.

For this reason, the season of Lent can mislead many into a false observance. In some denominations, the idea of “giving up something for Lent” would be deemed a “good work” which would merit favour with God. Typically, people “punish” themselves by giving up something which they enjoy, like chocolate or cake or some other similar, superhuman sacrifice. Much more rarely are those who try to give up something truly sinful, and depending on the sin, that could make telling others about one’s Lenten sacrifice a little bit tricky. So, is “religiously” attending midweek Lenten services an idolatrous “good work” or a burdensome act of contrition, which in the end is still an idolatrous good work?

For Lutherans, extra Lenten services offer something diametrically opposed to religion and its various idols. At midweek Lenten serves, we gather to hear God’s word in both law and gospel. That is to hear that we are sinners prey to idolatry of all kinds and descriptions and then to hear that through faith alone in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we are truly forgiven of our sins by the one true God. Lenten services, like Sunday services, are not something which we do. Instead, they are opportunities in which God does something to us. He reminds us of our fallen nature, he calls us to acknowledge and confess such sins, and then he declares that we are forgiven, even righteous, as a gift, through faith alone. So, this Lenten season, have a few extra slices of chocolate cake and celebrate the gift of your forgiveness with others.


Proverbs

The Old Testament book of Proverbs is just that, a collection of sayings that speak a general truth or offer advice. When was the last time that you read any of the Proverbs? Whence do you get your advice in times of trouble or strife?

Traditionally, most of us seeking advice turn to family or friends. Further from home, there are always the “agony aunt” columns in the newspapers. Today, many “Google” questions hoping to be given useful answers or log on to social media or read blogs or the like to obtain advice from self-proclaimed experts. In comparison, randomly or systematically reading the Proverbs for tips on life seems more like sifting through the haystack in search of the proverbial needle, i.e. much of it seems not to apply to any given concern or issue.

That raises the question why we tend to want advice in times of trouble when we could seek out such advice in advance. Instead of flipping through the pages of the Bible in a crisis, what if we read the Bible regularly, i.e. in advance of life’s dilemmas and concerns? Rather than searching the haystack for the proverbial needle, what if we knew the haystack so well that finding the needle was not a concern in addressing our concerns because the needle was never lost?

Part of the problem with life’s problems is that they seem to introduce hindrances, obstacles, and even dead ends into the course of life. Imagine watching an old film, and instead of it ending with the words “The End” shining on the screen, somewhere in the middle of a scene in the middle of the film the screen suddenly goes black, and then the words “Dead End” appear. That may seem a terribly contrived example because as we know in real life the film will not usually end without a warning, such as problems with the projector bulb or the film jumping out of sync or the like. The really upsetting aspect in this hypothetical crisis would be accidently knocking the popcorn all over the floor, most of which could not be consumed within the five second rule.

More pertinent examples of hindrances, obstacles, and mayhem from real life, however, might include waking up from the anesthesia and realizing that the sermon is not yet over, having a flat tire on the way to work, having the seam in one’s trousers split in the middle of a job interview, getting lost in a strange town, receiving a call from the police about one of your children, discovering that your spouse is having an affair, or being told by the doctor that the condition is terminal.

Hindrances, obstacles, and dead ends place a question mark over what we expect, or expected, to be the future. Our sense of hope in life is inextricably tied to our prospects for a future which we generally take for granted. When our future becomes uncertain or nonexistent, despair can easily overtake us, compounding what may already be a dire situation. Despair itself feels like a dead end. In such times, we may find ourselves looking longingly at those around us whose fortunes seem certain. Meanwhile, in contrast, we may not have the time, energy, desire, or hope to look for the needle in our haystack set alight by the trials of life.

In such times of crisis, it may seem nothing short of futile to search the Bible and, if lucky, be to find, “Let not your heart envy sinners, but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day. Surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off” (Proverbs 23:17-18 – ESV). With such a proverb, we are already carrying with us the proverbial needle everyday and hopefully doing so completely unconcerned that the whole haystack could go up in flames. Furthermore, with such a needle to hand, we are much more ready to be able to stitch our lives back together in times of crisis.

Amidst all the hindrances, obstacles, mayhem, and dead ends in life, we Christians always have something which non-believers do not have, namely a future. That future is the promise in this life of the gift of eternal life given to each one of us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hear that promise proclaimed to us. We become part of that promise in baptism. We taste that promise at the Lord’s table. Listen to St. Paul describe the reality of this promise, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-29 – ESV). Jesus Christ, our crucified Lord, is our future, is our hope, and is our life in all the shadows of death because God the Father raised him from the dead. When life’s problems arise, remember that in baptism you have been raised with Christ, and “surely there is a future, and your hope will not be cut off.”



Mark Menacher PhD. Pastor

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