Preaching to the Strong

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge these famous, much-abused words on 30 April 1944:

What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience — and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as “religious” do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by “religious.”

Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the “religious a priori” of mankind. “Christianity” has always been a form — perhaps the true form — of “religion.” But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless — and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any “religious” reaction?) — what does that mean for “Christianity?” It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our “Christianity,” and that there remain only a few “last survivors of the age of chivalry,” or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as “religious.” Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce in fervour, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods? Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don’t want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity — and even this garment has looked very different at different times — then what is a religionless Christianity?

… What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God — without religion, i.e. without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even “speak” as we used to) in a “secular” way about “God?” In what way are we “religionless-secular” Christians, in what way are we the εκ-κλησία, those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favoθred, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer ina religionless situation? Does the secret discipline, or alternatively the difference (which I have suggested to you before) between the penultimate and ultimate, take on a new importance here?

The Pauline question whether περιτομή is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. Freedom from περιτομή is also freedom from religion. I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” often draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, “in brotherhood.” While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people — because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest (it’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable) — to people with no religion I can on occasion mention him by name quite calmly and as a matter of course. Religious people speak of God when human knowledge (perhaps simply because they are too lazy to think) has come to an end, or when human resources fail — in fact it is always the deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene, either for the apparent solution of insoluble problems, or as strength in human failure — always, that is to say, exploiting human weakness or human boundaries. Of necessity, that can go on only till people can by their own strength push these boundaries somewhat further out, so that God becomes superfluous as a deus ex machina. I’ve come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the centre, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluble unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the “solution” of the problem of death. God’s “beyond” is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village. That is how it is in the Old Testament, and in this sense we still read the New Testament far too little in the light of the Old. How this religionless Christianity looks, what form it takes, is something that I’m thinking about a great deal, and I shall be writing to you again about it soon. It may be that on us in particular, midway between East and West, there will fall a heavy responsibility. (Letters and Papers from Prison [London: SCM, 1971, 279–282)

The letter is famous, because it opens up several enormous questions, each of which could be (and has been) turned into many books.

One very important theme here that has particular currency in that part of the church that today wants to remain faithful to the Reformation understanding of the Gospel: the preaching of the Gospel to people when they are strong, not only when they are weak (a theme that must have had particular resonance in National Socialist society).

At various times, Augustine, Luther and others have been blamed for the inward turn of the Christian faith, to what Krister Stendahl styled the “introspective conscience”. While I’m not convinced that the charge sticks to Augustine or to Luther, it certainly is a central feature of modern Protestantism in a great number of different disguises: charismatic experiantialism, do-gooding moralism, Arminian conversionism and its sub-heresy, revivalism.

But there’s also a conservative variant, which is currently all the rage in English-speaking Lutheranism (among both professing Lutherans and Lutheranising others, such as Tullian Tchvidjian). This particular variant quotes a lot of Luther, but also has existentialism in its family tree. Its watchword is the sharp disjuncture of Law and Gospel, and it is introspective in its own, unique way.

In this particular view, the relationship between Law and Gospel is both contrastive and basically linear: the Law (because it always accuses) crushes, while the Gospel (because it always only gives), brings to life.

Which is true. As far as it goes.

This particular hermeneutic has its very important place in caring for ‘terrified consciences’, in bringing consolation to those who mourn and building up those who are broken.

But it’s not the whole truth, and it’s not the whole story. It is tremendously important and powerful in lifting up the weak. But it has less to say to those who are not weak.

The spiritual malaise of our day is not weakness and fear but strength and boldness. And if the only narrative we have is that the Gospel takes those who are broken or weak, and heals them and gives them strength, then we have very little to say to those who feel on top of the world, those whose lives are full of meaning, those who are contented and confident.

Moreover, as Antony Sacramone has pointed out very powerfully and, to my mind, persuasively, this hermeneutic risks infantilising (my word, not his) the Christian, with nothing to give other than a broken record of a Christian life lived in a steady circle of condemnation and redemption. It’s not very difficult to demonstrate that this is not how the New Testament authors speak, and it is not how Luther himself speaks.

But if this is our narrative, then the only entry into this narrative is through weakness. It appeals to the weak; those who are not weak must be made so. And if they’re not game for weakening, we have nothing to say. That is to say, the only sermon we have is the final flourish of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, and the only evangelistic strategy we have is Paul in the Philippian gaol.

And if this is so, the surely Nietzsche was right (and Freud not far from the truth) in identifying Christianity as the religion of the weak, of the infantile. Psychologically, that is.

But the Gospel is for all the world. It’s for the weak, but it’s also for those who think they are strong. What message does the Church have for those who are not weak? What does Jesus have to say to the St. Pauls of this world, as well as to the St. Peters?

Of course, theologically speaking those who think they are strong are in fact dead in their trespasses—weaker than the weak, without a living leg to stand on. But we mustn’t confuse that theological truth with psychology.

Nor should we reduce those who have been strong in the Lord repeatedly to a state of psychological weakness by “the Law”, to which a psychologically motivated “Gospel” then provides the answer. That’s to turn Law/Gospel preaching into yet another “religion”, where the forgiveness of sins functions as nothing but a deus ex machina in formulaic preaching.

It’s lazy preaching, it’s monochrome exegesis (if that), and it is utterly alien to the biblical proclamation, which is never without the cross of Christ in its centre but which brings the fulness of life in Jesus Christ. You won’t find it in the pages of Scripture (how many times does Paul address 1st century Christians as sinners, as opposed to saints?), and you won’t find it in the sermons of Chrysostom, Augustine, Luther or Gerhard. Not unless it’s in the actual text which they are expounding, that is!

Since the Scripture is the Word of God, we can have confidence that it can do what it does with people when they are exposed to it. If we only have one ordo salutis into which to squeeze all of humanity in order to speak God’s Word meaningfully to all creation, perhaps there’s a problem with our religion, and we need to recover the living voice of the Gospel.

First chicken, then egg

You are not rightly distinguishing Law and Gospel in the Word of God if you first preach … sanctification and then justification, … or first good works and then grace.

C.F.W. Walther, Law and Gospel, Thesis VII

Sanctification—joining the fray

Since the world and its dog is writing about this just now…

Recently, I have been heartened to read several blog posts each on sanctification, by Pr. Mark Surburg and Pr. Jordan Cooper, respectively. You can read them here and here. That means, amongst other things, that Pr. Paul McCain is no longer alone beating this worthy drum.

All those worthy folks make the case entirely to my satisfaction, sources and all. That walking repository of quotations, Pr. William Weedon, adds some pretty useful quotations to the mix in some of the comments. You can read them here, along with some sturdy criticisms as well.

This is a topic that has troubled me for some time. Even before I began to train as a pastor, I had come across the view that seems to be pretty widespread in certain English-speaking confessional Lutheran circles: that the Law only kills, and only the Gospel has a positive application. Of course, no one ever says that—but an awful lot of preachers preach as if that were true. Which amounts to the same thing. Indeed, Prs. Surburg and Cooper both nail the issue on the head by discussing the role of preaching in sanctification. Because that is the question.

There are so many different factors at work here that I lack the space, the energy and, frankly, the competence to deal with it all here. Just a couple of observations must suffice:

(1) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is a biblical teaching. You can’t get past that. “Be ye holy even as I am holy” means that something needs to happen. It also means that it has a behavioural aspect. If the will of God is my sanctification, and that means that I must renounce sexual immorality, then my behaviour must be marked by holiness.

That doesn’t mean that holiness is defined by behaviour. Of course not. But if my behaviour is unholy, then my life makes a lie out of that which God has declared me to be. Why else would I pray that God forgive me and by His Holy Spirit increase in me true knowledge of God and of God’s will and true obedience to His word?

(2) Sanctification as a process—by whatever name you call it—is embedded in the Lutheran confessions. Just read the first 8 articles of the Augsburg Confession, and the fourth section on Baptism in the Large and Small Catechisms. FC IV:40 is pretty clear, too.

(3) To teach good works is the duty of every preacher. And it’s not a coincidental or secondary duty, but part of the whole counsel of God. It’s a salutary exercise to read through Paul’s letter to Titus and to make a note of all the things that Paul instructs Titus to do. And, if you are a preacher, place yourself in Titus’ shoes and do what Paul instructs you to do.

(4) Not to teach God’s will concerning holiness of life and good works clearly and explicitly to the Christian congregation but somehow to expect the Holy Spirit to do His work is simply functional enthusiasm. If you are a Lutheran who says that the Holy Spirit works through means, and is never separated from those means, then that applies to faith and love alike. The Christian learns God’s will by hearing what God’s will is, through the preaching of God’s word. For the Christian, the Law doesn’t only accuse, because the Christian delights in the Law, which is good and holy, and because the Christian is free to obey the Law, in love and therefore without fear.

In short: if you don’t expect people to believe the Gospel without hearing the Gospel, you shouldn’t expect people to be conformed to God’s will without hearing God’s will. The Gospel alone empowers fallen people to do God’s will. But what that will is must be taught and proclaimed.

(5) It’s never a good idea to define yourself reactively. It’s OK not to use red wine if that becomes a sine qua non amongst the Reformed. It’s OK not to wear a Geneva gown if that’s required by the local Presbyterian board of elders as the true mark of a Christian minister.

It’s not OK to deny the works of the Holy Spirit because the charismatic movement happened and went crazy. And it’s not OK to deny sanctification as a real-life fact just because Wesley preached and people believe what he said, or because the Pope is Roman Catholic and espouses Roman Catholic teaching.

It’s not OK not to teach good works because there are lots of evangelical, liberal and every other kind of legalists out there burdening Christian consciences.

The truth is true, and if someone twists the truth into something else, the Christian response is to trumpet the truth with ever-greater purity, rather than pretend that it isn’t true.

(6) The Law is not merely the foil for the Gospel. It’s part of the whole counsel of God. We are not saved from the Law: we are saved from the accusation of the Law. We are not freed from God’s will: we are freed to do God’s will.

(7) The Law-Gospel distinction is not a tool for select which bits of God’s word we proclaim. It’s not an exegetical hermeneutic, but a pastoral one.


Finally, don’t take it from me. Just this last Sunday, Luther proclaimed in the House Postil that the two great subjects of Christian preaching are faith and love. The apostles knew that, the fathers of the church knew that, the Reformers knew that, as did the great preachers of the 17th century, and all great preachers. How do I know they knew that? Because that’s how they preached. And that’s how I ought to preach, too.

The people in the preacher’s study

Wise words on preaching from Pr. Christopher Esget:

When I have writer’s block in preparing a sermon, I try to think about explaining the text to particular members of my congregation, mentally bringing before me a child in our school, a young mother, an elderly person approaching death. I shouldn’t wait until I have writer’s block.

Read the whole thing here: The people in the preacher’s study | Esgetology.

Listening to a Sermon Fruitfully

“Isn’t it the case that we all – and I include myself here – complain so often about the sermon without ever asking whether the real basis for our discontent doesn’t perhaps lie within ourselves? When a hearer gets nothing from a sermon it is not always the sermon or the preacher that is to blame. Listening to sermons is like work, or better yet an art that one must learn. Fruitful listening requires a measure of Christian formation and spiritual receptivity that few seem to possess anymore (in fact, I dare say that I have only seen it today in ‘simple’ people, in farmers and labourers in country areas). The lack of this formation cannot be compensated for by the thundering rhetoric or the emotional eloquence which most people seem to expect nowadays from preachers if they are to stay alert.”

From Hermann Sasse, ‘Concerning the Hearing of God’s Word’, a sermon preached in Erlangen, Germany on Rogate Sunday, 18th May, 1941 (Text: James 1:22-27)[trans. M.A. Henderson].

HT: Cyberbrethren

Proclaiming and bringing

Saint Luke iconWhile reading Luke 8 with my wife last night, I noticed something that had passed me by before:

Soon afterward he [Jesus] went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. (Luke 8:1)

Proclaiming and bringing. That’s a lovely summary of how the Gospel works: Jesus proclaims and brings the good news, all in one. The proclamation brings what it proclaims.

Or looked another way: preaching is at its heart spiritual care, because preaching is a public exercise of the office of the keys. The preaching of the Law brings about guilt, because it proclaims the condemnation of God on sin. And the preaching of the Gospel brings about absolution, because it proclaims the forgiveness of sins.

All in one neat pair of verbs: proclaiming and bringing.