Thursday, October 20, 2011

What Luther Might Say About Our Preaching

I just finished typing into a Word doc a few quotes that I wanted to remember from Luther's The Bondage of the Will. As it happens, at the same time I was listening to the conclusion of a sermon preached at a Bible college. I was struck by the juxtaposition of two strikingly different articulations of the gospel and sanctification—one entering through my ears, and the other through my eyes.

In the sermon, the preacher argued that if we're going to obey Scripture, we need a strategy. We need an achievable plan of action if we want to pursue our new direction successfully. We need to figure out what we need to do to change.

Depending on how we define some of those terms, I wouldn't necessarily argue that he was wrong. I do wish he'd have said a bit more, somewhere along the way. I think Martin Luther tells us why:
I frankly confess that, for myself, even if it could be, I should not want ‘free-will’ to be given me, nor anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation; not merely because in face of so many dangers, and adversities, and assaults of devils, I could not stand my ground and hold fast my ‘free-will’ (for one devil is stronger than all men, and on these terms no man could be saved); but because, even were there no dangers, adversities, or devils, I should still be forced to labour with no guarantee of success, and to beat my fists at the air.

If I lived and worked to all eternity, my conscience would never reach comfortable certainty as to how much it must do to satisfy God. Whatever work I had done, there would still be a nagging doubt as to whether it pleased God, or whether He required something more. The experience of all who seek righteousness by works proves that; and I learned it well enough myself over a period of many years, to my own great hurt. But now that God has taken my salvation out of the control of my own will, and put it under the control of His, and promised to save me, not according to my working or running, but according to His own grace and mercy, I have the comfortable certainty that He is faithful and will not lie to me, and that He is also great and powerful, so that no devils or opposition can break Him or pluck me from Him. . . .

Furthermore, I have the comfortable certainty that I please God, not by reason of the merit of my works, but by reason of His merciful favour promised to me; so that, if I work too little, or badly, He does not impute it to me, but with fatherly compassion pardons me and makes me better. This is the glorying of all the saints in their God. (313-314)
We need to preach biblical imperatives. We need to help believers see their obligations to obey biblical commands in a culture that's very different from the first century. But if we fail to encourage them that their hope of victory isn't grounded in their action plan, but in a whole-hearted dependence on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit of God—then we've taught them how to fail, and we've given them a reason to quit.

We can debate whether that's a chord we need to play every time we step into the pulpit. I think I can make a reasonably persuasive case that we should. But I suspect that many of us have lived and served in places where we never heard it. My question is this: How big of a problem do we think that is? How we answer that question reveals a great deal about our understanding of the gospel.


Paul said...

It's a REALLY big problem!

As I have heard said so well, "An imperative, without the indicative, is an impossibility."

An in assuming indicatives, they are ignored.

Ben said...

Ha! So true. I'll bet we both first heard that line in the same place. I'm trying to remember who else was in that class, and if memory serves correctly it's a bit ironic.

Andrew Suttles said...

I read The Bondage over this past summer and started blogging through it, but alas, the book is missing. I believe my toddler threw is in the trash when I was staying at a hotel, out of town, a few weeks ago.

I'll have to buy a new copy before I can finish my posts.

By the way, have you read Luther's commentary on Galatians? It's fantastic!!

Also, if you are a Luther fan, check out the Beggar's All blog by James Swan - good resources there.