Erasmus Sarcerius: Comfort for the Sick

Having instructed the sick person and obtained a confession of sins (see this post), Sarcerius proceeds to offer consolation by means of absolution and the Sacrament. Of particular note is the change in character of the sickness. By means of the forgiveness of sins, the sickness ceases to be a sin-sickness. And if death should follow, it is no longer a Zorntod – a death under God’s wrath. Rather, this sickness now serves to draw the afflicted to Christ, to the merits of his suffering and death, and finally to eternal life.

The certainty of Christ is set over against the certainty of this sickness and eventual death. The Sacraments are added for the strengthening of the weak and as seal and pledge of the promises delivered by the mouth of the pastor. The aim of the pastor’s consolation is the delivery of a good conscience, which requires the testimony of Christ’s body and blood. Notice, however, that in the misuse of the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood consciences are again defiled. To receive the Sacrament in one kind only leaves the sick with no certainty that he is following God’s will and doing what is right.

Sarcerius is keenly aware of the temptation to fall back into old habits in the hour of great need, but he does not respond with indulgence. Instead, he presses earnestly forward, insisting that the command of Christ to eat and drink is the ground of consolation in the Sacrament. To step outside that command and institution is to abandon the hope for a good conscience. The question of Communion in one kind persists in 1559, pointing to the patience with which it has been treated. Nevertheless, patience must not give way to negligence. That is a delicate and narrow path to tread, and Sarcerius shows that such work continues even to the last hour.


Now then listen to what a merciful God you have. You ought to have been eternally damned for your sins. For it is impossible for any man to help himself out of death and to be able to come to God’s grace through his ability or good life. Therefore God let his only-begotten son, our Lord Jesus Christ, become man and die on the cross for our sins and rise on the third day so that we many be freed from our sins through him and come to the grace of God and eternal life. As Christ himself preaches: “Thus God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten son, so that all who believe in him, etc.” (Joh. 3). Do you believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, that he became man for your sake and paid for your sins on the wood of the cross and sacrificed his life? If you believe it, then I absolve you from all your sins in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Do not doubt that I now speak to you on God’s behalf. For Christ commanded that one should preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name. And in John 20 he says: “Receive the Holy Ghost. The sins of those you forgive are forgiven. And those you retain, etc. ” Therefore you should certainly believe and hope in the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life through Christ and henceforth commend to the hand of your dear God that he do with you according to his divine will. For even if the sickness should continue unto death, it is no longer a sin-sickness, nor a death under wrath, but rather it is all together an encouragement that we come to that which Christ has earned with his suffering and death, that is, to eternal life. But so that such comfort may be more certain for us, the Lord did not want to leave it with such a statement alone. Rather, he first sealed it with holy Baptism. For you were baptized into Christ’s death, so that you may put it to use and should be freed from sin and death. Then, Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper for his Christians as a new Testament, in which he gives us his body and blood for food and drink, so that we may be certain that such body was given for our sins and his blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins.

But if we want to rightly handle that testament of Christ, we must not handle it otherwise than Christ himself has commanded. Now Christ didn’t say just to eat his body under or with the bread, but he also said to drink his blood under the wine and spoke: “Drink of it all of you.” Therefore I cannot and will not give you the Sacrament otherwise than as Christ commanded me to give it and the Christian Church all together has done for more than 1300 years. So you should not desire nor receive the Sacrament otherwise than as Christ commanded. Then you can be sure that you are following his will and not doing wrong.

So say to me, will you in this manner receive this most worthy Sacrament to strengthen your faith that the body of Christ is given for your sins and his blood shed for the forgiveness of your sins.

When the patient answers, “Yes,” then the pastor first kneels with the patient and prays with him the Our Father out loud.

Thereafter he goes to the table where the host and the wine is and he speaks the words of our Lord Christ out loud. First:

On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to his disciples and spoke: “Take and eat, this is my body, which is given for you. Do this for my remembrance.”

After these words he gives him the bread and says:

Take and eat, this is the body of Jesus Christ which is given for your sins.

Thereafter, he goes again to the table and speaks further: In the same way he also took the cup after the meal and gave thanks and gave it to them and said, “Drink of it all of you, this is my blood of the new Testament, which is poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this as often as you drink it for my remembrance.”

Take and drink, this is the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ  which is poured out for your sins.


Let us now thank God. Repeat after me.

I thank you almighty God that you have restored me through this salutary gift of the body and blood of your son Jesus Christ, and I pray that you would let it give me growth to strong faith towards you so that I commend everything to your mercy and through the help of your Son and the Holy Spirit overcome everything and live eternally according to your promise. Amen.

Erasmus Sarcerius, Pastorale oder Hirtenbuch, trans. David Buchs, (Eisleben: Urbanus Raubisch, 1559), CLXXXIIv-CLXXXIIIv.

Erasmus Sarcerius: On Visiting the Sick

Erasmus Sarcerius (1501-1559) was a Lutheran pastor and theologian who studied under Luther and Melanchthon in Wittenberg. His activity during his career was chiefly as a superintendent. He labored to put Lutheran doctrine into practice in the church, and his efforts were lauded by the first generation of Lutherans. Not surprisingly his work faded into the background as it was largely local and fell victim to the vagaries of political shifts and confessional controversies. He did not expect anything different, however, often arguing that a work well-begun and not finished is far better than a work never begun. At the end of his life, Sarcerius published a pastoral theology which he wrote to give young pastors a leg-up into the ministry.

For your edification, here is the first part of his chapter on the visitation of the sick. It is the instruction that is to be addressed to the sick prior to receiving absolution and the Sacrament. There are several observations worth making initially. First, Sarcerius is principally concerned with ensuring that the patient knows the true character of sickness. Imagine a context in which death was much nearer and more imminent than it is for us today. It easily begins to seem like a part of the natural order, as harvest and slaughter are to farmers. Such an attitude towards death is an obstacle for the faithful to adequate preparation for dying.

Next, observe how Sarcerius is concerned to liberate the patient: you should make full use of medicine and doctors. God may indeed save you from sickness. If he does, it will likely be through means. It does not indicate a failure of faith to hope for good medicine and good doctors. On the contrary, it is a display of faith to make use of God’s creation towards the ends for which he has created it, so long as it is received with thanksgiving.

Finally, Sarcerius’ insistence on a confession from the heart may grate on us a bit, but notice how he parses it (revealing his background in pedagogy). Repentance from the heart is not a matter of sufficient feelings, but a posture over against sin. Do you wish that you had not sinned, and do you intend to do better?

My dear man, you now lie in God’s hands and don’t know which way God will take this, whether he will restore your health or pull you by death out of this life. Whether or not you regain your health, it is certain that you must someday die. You know what follows death. For you confess in faith that Christ sits at the right hand of the Father and will return to judge the living and the dead. You also confess that you and all men must await not just death but also God’s verdict and judgment on the last day. On that account it is necessary for you properly to prepare for such a journey, and pay close attention to this work which God has now put before you. For there is a big difference between human sickness and death and the sickness and death of a cow. The cow must also die and suffer all kinds of sickness as we can see, but that is all natural, and the cow experiences it not from God’s wrath. It is the cow’s nature that it cannot remain forever and eventually must suffer a mishap, get sick, and finally die. But when it is dead, it is over and there is nothing left to expect.

But man must suffer sickness and death on account of sin. For the Lord threatened Adam in paradise and said: In the day that you eat of the tree you will certainly die. You should note this and know it well: the sickness that you now suffer is not without danger, nor do you experience it naturally. It is the penalty for your sin, you who are a child of Adam, born in sin, bearing a sinful nature from your father and mother, and having spent your life in sin against God and his word. Therefore you have two things to consider. The first is the lesser – that you are free to use doctors and medicines, created by God for the good of man. You are free to pray to God that he may give them success. For experience compels us to  acknowledge that, just as in many sicknesses it is harmful to eat or drink this or that, God has also created many fruits, roots, herbs, and other creations, which have special power and salutary effect both inside and outside the body. Therefore it is not only not wrong, but also useful and good in sickness to seek and use the help of men, as long as you hold God to be the best and most reliable doctor and with every medicine see and hope for his help. That is the first, but the lesser of the things that you should now consider. The other is this: how you may be released from sin and the wrath of God. You must begin with this part. For because sickness is rooted in sin, the sin must first be done away with if you would help the body. And especially must sin be done away with if body and soul are to be helped. For sickness stops when death comes. But sin does not stop since God’s judgment is yet ahead.

So say to me now, do you confess that you are a sinner, and do you want to be free of both sickness and sin? I don’t doubt it concerning sickness. For anyone would gladly be free from what weighs on the body. Therefore show only whether you are sorry for your sin from your heart and that you want to be released from it. What do you answer? Do you confess that you are a poor sinner and that you have your whole life long done and intended much evil against God and his word and against your own conscience? Is it sorrow from your heart so that you wish you had not done it, and if God grants you further life, you will no longer do it, but rather more earnestly hold to God’s word and will and do better? What do you answer?

Here he answers: Yes.

Erasmus Sarcerius, Pastorale oder Hirtenbuch, trans. David Buchs, (Eisleben: Urbanus Raubisch, 1559), CLXXXIIr-v.

The consolation that Sarcerius offers to such a penitent will follow in another post.

Outsourcing Conscience: A Response to Yuval Noah Harari

When Yuval Noah Harari (author of best-selling books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2011 and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2017) thinks about artificial intelligence, he doesn’t picture robots gaining sentience and exterminating humanity. He does picture the increasing irrelevance of certain classes, growing global inequality, and a shift in authority from humanity to data-driven algorithms. The last of these is not really a prediction, but a fairly linear extrapolation of historical technological trends.

Technology develops because of the human drive to make work simpler, more efficient, or more effective. Pushing back against the curse (Gen. 3:17-19), men have managed to leverage their unique rational capacities in mitigating some consequences of sin. Or at least it seems that way. Perhaps technology has just permitted men to redistribute the effects of the curse. And that may be one of the reasons why it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven – he does not feel the sweat of his face in bringing forth thorns and thistles. On the other hand, the insatiability of men remains as a reminder of the first sin. Efficiency should mean an opportunity to work less, but it is often used instead as a means to produce more.

By now we have moved far beyond the simple jigs that automate and optimize mechanical tasks. The questions we ask of technology are no longer simply quantitative, but also qualitative. Having mastered the realm of objectivity, technology now promises to help us deal with our subjectivity. Instead of asking, “How can I do this?” we have begun to ask, “What should I do?” Data is invaluable because it permits humanity to outsource the most difficult task of decision-making.

This already happens extensively in trivial ways. Netflix offers recommendations that match your watching history. Amazon suggests products that complement products you have already purchased. Yelp lets you tap into to the experiences and opinions of countless strangers as you choose a restaurant. But even in its infancy, information technology was promising to make much more critical decisions for us. In 1959, a couple of Stanford students used a mainframe and punch cards with survey data to match prospective romantic partners. Now by swiping left or right you can not only help build the enormous data-set but benefit from its algorithmic matchmaking output in real-time.

Harari is wary of these advances because he perceives the potential for manipulation. Every algorithm has been written by somebody, and not everybody has humanity’s best interests in mind. We are nonetheless extremely susceptible to technological suggestion because our expectations are so low. The computers just need to make somewhat better decisions than us most of the time in order for us to find them to be trustworthy. Considering how often we make bad decisions that’s a minor hurdle.

That susceptibility, however, tells us more about ourselves than Harari observes. In the first place, our interest in reliable decision-making belies our craving for authority. We learn quickly in life that people are untrustworthy and easily tempted to abuse authority. But that cannot erase our resonance with the ordered character of creation. We are meant to be under authority, and when artificial intelligence promises that authority without the vicissitudes of earthly fathers, we are happily imprinted.

Still, a more damning fact about humanity underlies that susceptibility. Unmistakably aware that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Ro. 3:10), we are always in pursuit of acquittal. That makes the promise of sound decision-making extremely attractive. By outsourcing our consciences to artificial intelligence, we have so much to gain. We gain certainty in the face of our own mixed feelings. Combined with accurate biometric sensors, technology could even correct for our changing feelings and help us to make decisions that will minimize the sensation of guilt. We also gain a scapegoat. Our love for having someone to blame should surprise no one, exhibited first in the Garden of Eden and now every time a child excuses himself by saying, “My brother told me to do it.” What could be better than the victimless blame-shifting afforded by having a computer make your decisions?

All of that is enough to warrant caution. If technology is used to numb or deflect pangs of conscience, then it has indeed become an instrument of the devil. But more fundamentally, we should know better because sound, objective decision-making could never favor humanity. Suppose you could gather all the data and crunch all the numbers. Let us say that you can measure not just actions but also motives. You would discover only one solution to all the ethical questions posed by humanity – eternal judgment. After all, a purely objective and consistent moral system must finally resemble God’s Holy Law. And by that standard, there is only one possible outcome. Artificial intelligence could not choose life in the end. For that, what we need is an authority who favors humanity against better judgment and in spite of the data.

Faithful in Mission, Part 5

So far we have discussed the message. What about the messenger? We have also spent a lot of time during this convention speaking about unity. What does that mean for the mission of the Church? The last passage to consider is 1 Corinthians 9:15-23. Talking about being “all things to all men” might seem counter intuitive with regard to unity, but consider the context of this passage. Corinth in general was deeply divided, and one of the points of division in the congregation was over the question of meat sacrificed to idols. Some, knowing that an idol is nothing at all, believed that they could partake of that meat without any issues. Others, weaker in conscience, believed it to be a sin, for they knew the Commandment: You shall have no other gods. However, the stronger despised the weak for that reason and went ahead anyway, destroying the work of God in the process. Paul calls for all Christians to bear with one another in love, abstaining even from that which was lawful in order to build up rather than tear down.

Therefore, Paul defends his office of apostle against those who spoke against him. Paul had every right to eat and drink, to take a wife, and to make his living by the Gospel. None of these things were forbidden to him. Yet he denies himself those rights for the sake of the Gospel. This is what he means in our passage for consideration. “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” Paul denies himself what he could have so that there would be nothing in the way of doing what God sent him to do. His language of “necessity” drives this point home. Just like the warning to the prophet Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3, the watchman who does not warn the sinner will bear that sinner’s guilt upon his own head, but the watchman who speaks will deliver his own soul. Paul says, “For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” If done willingly, there is a reward. If not, there is still the matter of duty. Yet Paul undertakes it willingly so that nothing would stand in the way of the Gospel. He forsakes even what he could do for the sake of the proclamation.

His point, then, about being “all things to all men” is not about being pragmatic, as if he just tinkered with his message to make it more palatable to certain groups of people. Paul, though strong, gave up his strength to be like the weak so that the work of Christ would not be torn down. The stronger Christian is not called to lord it over the weaker. That is the way of disunity, the very problem at Corinth. The way of the Spirit is the unity of peace, bearing with one another and caring for one another just as Christ did not make use of His rights when He came down among us. Christ calls us to be self-denying and selfless in His service. Note that Paul did not pretend as if he was not married to certain groups of people, nor did he pretend that he made his living by tent-making to others. Paul gave them up entirely so that nothing would hinder the Gospel of Christ. It must be noted, of course, that Paul does not mean that the weaker brother should be left in his weakness. He must be built up in Christ so that he would be strong according to the grace of the Lord. Yet we must be so willing to follow after Jesus that we would give up even what is ours by right or by desire to be fishers of men. Jesus says in Luke 18:29-30: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

Christians, the Lord has called us into the world to proclaim His Word. You are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that you should walk in them. Let us be faithful to that calling, being willing to forsake everything for His sake. Let us be united in that calling, proclaiming the Law and the Gospel to all. As Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5: “As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

Faithful in Mission, Part 4

Once one recognizes his sin, the Spirit proclaims the word of reconciliation. The fourth passage for consideration is Acts 8:26-40. Philip provides an excellent example. “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. And he rose and went.” Philip does not hesitate! Hearing the command of the Lord, he goes to the place where the Lord wants him to be. May we too be so quick to follow the will of our Master! Philip meets an important man from Ethiopia who was returning from Jerusalem. He probably feared God in some way, but his knowledge was obviously incomplete. Philip hears the eunuch reading from the book of Isaiah and asks him whether he understands what he is saying. When he then brings Philip into his chariot to help him, Philip proclaims Christ. “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” Note what Philip had done. Following the call of the Spirit, Philip proclaimed Jesus Christ from the Scriptures. No one other than Christ is our hope and our salvation. Because the Lord willed for this man to believe in Him, the eunuch then desired to be baptized. The Sacraments are also part of the mission of the Church and should not be separated from it. Those who believe in Christ are made a part of the body of Christ. Mission work is never divorced from the life of the whole.

Because the work of the Lord is intimately connected with the church body, there is always the temptation to engage in mission work as a way of making things run better. Our church is not as big as it used to be, so we should evangelize the neighborhood. It is a dangerous way of thinking, because it regards people not as souls in need of Christ but as the means to keeping things going. Yet notice what Philip does after baptizing the eunuch: “And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” It was the will of the Lord that Philip continue on his way, but that did not color the message that Philip proclaimed. The Ethiopian needed to hear about Christ, and Christ caused His Church to grow, even if he was no longer connected to Philip. Philip even preached the Gospel the whole way from Azotus to Caesarea, not seeking personal gain or glory, but being faithful to the Lord’s mission. Those believers were connected to the local churches, of course, because it is the Lord’s will for us to lift up holy hands in every place. It seems the most natural for those who hear our message to be attached to our local congregations, but it may be the Lord’s will for them to go somewhere else instead. Pray for a bountiful harvest, but let God hammer out the details.

Faithful in Mission, Part 3

Thus, the mission itself and the importance of that mission are clear. We are called to proclaim the Word of God because we are in Christ, and the Lord has chosen to call His elect through our preaching. It is not our Word, but His. What, then, is the content of that message? Because Christ has come to call sinners to faith, one must first recognize his own sin. The third passage for consideration, therefore, is Romans 1:18-23. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” Paul here states that God’s wrath is not something that is hidden. His wrath is not part of His special revelation, but it is evident to all men. However, men suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Everyone knows, whether he wants to admit it or not, that God exists, because they know the Law of God in their conscience. This is not a deistic concept of God, as if we have a vague notion of a creator deity who demands something from us. Paul says that they know God, because God has revealed Himself to them. “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” All people are without excuse, because even though they know God, they suppress this knowledge through sin. If they did not know God as He is, then they might have a defense before the judgment seat, claiming ignorance of Him and of His Law. Yet all are without excuse. All men must answer to God, because they have broken His Law. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.” Idolatry, according to Paul, is not putting a face upon a vague notion of a god. It is not creating an image of a sense of divine power. It is deliberately giving what properly belongs to the only God to one of His creations. In their desire to suppress what they know to be true, they worship the creature rather than the creator and pile sin upon sin.

This is an important consideration, because the message which Christ has sent us to proclaim is not one that is entirely foreign to our hearers. If they truly did not know God at all, not even in their heart of hearts, then there could be no proclamation. They would not be guilty of breaking the Law, because then the Law would be something foreign. Men would be neutral with respect to God, something which is plainly not true, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We should not hesitate to proclaim the Law to the unbeliever, because it reveals what he refuses to admit: that he is a lawbreaker guilty before the only God whom he tries desperately to deny. There is also no relativism here, as if the Christian worldview was an alternative to the unbelieving one. This is not a case of I have mine and you have yours. Rather, there is one and only one reality, the Christian. The unbeliever knows God, as Paul says, because he must assume so in order to make sense of anything. Morality, for example, presupposes that God is good. Evil has no meaning apart from contrasting it with the Triune God. Science presupposes order, something which makes no sense apart from God. Of course, the unbeliever denies this vigorously, but in order to know anything at all, he begins with the very God he tries to suppress.

The task of apologetics, therefore, is to “destroy strongholds,” to use the language of Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:4. I believe that there is a real danger in treating apologetics as merely preliminary to the Gospel. There is in fact no truly middle ground between belief and unbelief. Everything which the unbeliever sees is colored by his suppression of the truth. Even the resurrection all by itself can be distorted, as Christ Himself says in Luke 16:31: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” A vigorous proclamation of God’s Word, therefore, is the most vigorous apologetic.

Faithful in Mission, Part 2

The Lord’s command, then, is clear. The second passage, Romans 10, further clarifies the importance of this mission. Throughout this section of Romans, Paul wrestles with the question of election. Why had the Jews, who were chosen by God, fallen away, while the Gentiles, who were separated from God, had come to know Him? Paul argues in Romans 10:12-13 that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'” Salvation, therefore, is not a matter of human will or according to the flesh. Those who believe do so because God has chosen them from before the foundation of the world. The doctrine of election informs our understanding of mission. God does not choose men because we have preached the Gospel to them, as if we act and then the Lord confirms it. The Lord will without fail bring His elect to Himself, apart from every human consideration.

Yet the Lord uses us for His own purposes. Paul writes in Romans 10:14-15: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” Follow the progression of Paul’s thought. All who call on God will be saved. Only those who believe in Him will call on His name. They can only believe in the God they have heard or know. They can only hear the Word when it is proclaimed. One can only proclaim what he has been sent to proclaim. It is therefore the Lord’s will that brings His elect to Himself, and yet it is through men that His calling goes out into the world. The mission of the Church is therefore not useless or secondary when viewed in the light of election. Rather, the proclamation of the Gospel takes on a new urgency. The Lord calls His elect through the voice of the preacher.

Paul goes on in Romans 10 to answer the overarching question about Israel’s hardening. His ultimate point, toward the end of Romans 11, is that Israel was hardened so that the Gospel would go out into the world and that salvation is by faith and not by works. There is nothing within ourselves that makes us worthy of the mercy of God. However, Paul wishes to show in Romans 10 that, even though Israel had heard the Gospel, they continued to resist. Paul says, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, ‘Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?’ So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. But I ask, have they not heard? Indeed they have, for ‘Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the ends of the world.’ But I ask, did Israel not understand? First Moses says, ‘I will make you jealous of those who are not a nation; with a foolish nation I will make you angry.’ Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.'” His words remind us that the Gospel we have been sent to proclaim is not our own. God works faith when and where He pleases. As Paul says in Romans 9:15: “I [the Lord] will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” The Gospel is not a magical formula that we can use to convert anyone we please. Some will hear and be hardened. Some will hear and bear abundant fruit.

Isaiah 55:10-11 emphasizes this point. The Word of the Lord accomplishes His purposes and succeeds in doing whatever He sends it to do. We should not imagine that God scatters His Word aimlessly, as if the sower in the parable in passages like Luke 8 was casting the Word with reckless abandon. God intends His Word to go exactly where He wants it to go and to do exactly what He wants it to do. Sometimes He sends it as a hard word, as when He sent many of the prophets. The Lord charges Ezekiel to speak His Word to His own people even though they would refuse to listen. Ezekiel 3:10-11 says: “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears. And go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD,’ whether they hear or refuse to hear.” Therefore, the Lord’s calling is to proclaim the Word in its fullness, both the hard word and the easy word. We cannot split up the proclamation.

Review: Why Johnny Can’t Preach

T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (Phillipsburg, New Jersey, P&R Publishing Company, 2009).

If “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver,” (Proverbs 25:11) then T. David Gordon might contend that most of what he has heard from pulpits over the years bears more resemblance to the cacophony of a deconstructionist painting.

Just a few sentences into the introduction, Gordon drops this massive redpill: “I’ve always feared to state publicly that, in my opinion, less than 30 percent of those who are ordained to the Christian ministry can preach an even mediocre sermon.” (11). Hard to swallow, but necessary.  And again a few pages later, he laments “the problem…is not that we don’t have ‘great’ preachers; in many circumstances we don’t even have mediocre preachers.” (14).  He advocates meat and potatoes preaching—not entertainment, nor that every pastor become a Chrysostom.

Gordon’s concern is not so much failure on the doctrinal level, though he does touch on that a bit.  Instead, most of the book focuses on Left Hand Kingdom aspects of good preaching: clarity, memorability, and unity around a clear theme. Thinking he was dying of cancer, Gordon penned this concise, pointed, and heart-felt treatise against what he saw as ubiquitous, sub-par preaching.

Even better though, the author suggests numerous workable remedies.  Workable, that is, after the preacher, and perhaps even his congregation, undertake deliberate, long term solutions.

Gordon writes from decades of experience as a seminary professor and pew-sitter in the Orthodox Presbyterian in America, the Presbyterian Church in America, as well as the broader conservative Evangelical world.  Nonetheless, the Lutheran preacher can find great help in this book.

As Gordon sees it, “to preach the Word of God well, one must already have cultivated…three sensibilities: the sensibility of the close reading of texts, the sensibility of composed communication, and the sensibility of the significant.  Without these, a person simply cannot preach, any more than he could if his larynx were removed or he were utterly illiterate.” (106).

With a preface, an introduction, and five chapters, T. David Gordon diagnoses the sickness and prescribes the cure in just 108 pages.

In Chapter 1, Gordon unpacks his assertion that “Johnny can’t preach.”  In addition to personal experience as a listener, he draws on decades of anecdotal evidence, including conversations with lay people concerning preaching.  Gordon contrasts the basic public speaking expectations of Rotary Club with what passes on Sunday morning.  If any Lutherans are getting sweaty at this point, they will be comforted to know that among his criteria for a good sermon, Gordon lists “textual fidelity” and “evangelical tone,” as well as several other classical Reformed criteria.  Again, a discerning Lutheran pastor can find much to like here.

Chapter 2 takes a deeper dive down the rabbit hole, contending that “Johnny” cannot preach because he struggles even to read the Bible on the deep level needed for good preaching. Yes, he knows his phonics and might even have a master’s degree and some familiarity in the original languages, but he fails to read scripture in deliberate, disciplined manner needed for homiletics.  The preacher cannot speed read scripture for the basic content or information. He must be able to appreciate the specifics of each passage of scripture, rather than wander off into other more general Christian truths.  His sermons should not be simple paraphrases of the obvious facts.  The pastor needs to dig deep in order to bring up the treasures of God’s Word to his people.  This should be a slow, deliberate process.  Scripture itself must work on the preacher.  It should force him to think, wrestle, and stretch.  It should feed him and build him up.  Since “the text doesn’t stimulate [preachers] particularly…their sermon is not particularly stimulating to their hearers.” (47).

In Chapter 3, Gordon argues that we have allowed the way we use various electronic media to eviscerate our ability to compose meaningful communication.  Images, sounds, and videos bombard us all the time.  We take in more stimulation that a human brain can process.  When do we ever take a Sabbath rest from the constant barrage?  The modern reliance upon electronic media makes us passive, rather than active; lazy and confusing, rather than zealous and clear. Our brains are scattered and our words garbled.  If we are not careful, we allow the way we consume electronic media to hamper our ability to carefully read texts like the Bible, as well as our ability to communicate in a clear fashion.  Gordon advocates not necessarily that we go off-grid, but that we exercise discipline and also cultivate certain aptitudes.

The author discusses sermon content in Chapter 4.  The sermon should largely focus on Christ and his work of redemption.  Gordon explicitly compliments Lutherans on that point.  He also touches on four common misguided types of sermons: moralism, “how-to,” subjective spiritual introspection, and culture war/social gospel.  Lutherans would agree with him here.

Chapter 5 offers several solutions for the preacher.  First, an annual preaching review.  This is not so that the preacher can hear that he needs more jokes or needs to be more entertaining.  Instead, Gordon simply wants the sermon to be clear and memorable (he uses the word “unified”).  His suggestion is this: once each year, someone other than the preacher call several hearers at random on a Tuesday or a Wednesday and ask them what the sermon was about.  Gordon asserts “if, several days after the sermon, many or most hearers do not have any idea what it was about, or if they have different ideas, then the sermon plainly and manifestly failed at this crucial point [unity].” (98). A good Presbyterian, Gordon suggests the elders perform this task. Some Lutherans might quibble here.  Nonetheless, our tradition does assign such a role to the circuit visitor.

Gordon also suggests preachers cultivate an ability to read good literature in general, especially poetry.  The preacher must be able to read texts closely; he must be able to discern the significant and impress it upon his hearers.  This is different than a cursory reading for information.  Gordon makes several recommendations on how a pastor could start this in the parish.  He recommends An Experiment in Criticism, by C.S. Lewis, as well as Poetry as a Means of Grace, by Charles Grosvenor Osgood.  Gordon also rightly disavows post-World War II poetry as “almost perversely iconoclastic.” (102).

Similarly, preachers must cultivate an ability to write well.  Hand-written letters, well written emails, as well as contributing to newspapers, theological journals, or magazines will help him work these muscles.  Gordon also commends writing prayers as a devotional practice, as well as penning pastoral notes to one’s parishioners.  Lastly, Gordon suggests public speaking classes, or joining a club like Rotary which would help the preacher hone these skills.

The congregation can also help the pastor preach better sermons by respecting his time and his calling to be in the Word.  Gordon writes, “as long as the typical congregation runs its minister ragged with clerical, administrative, and other duties…[and] expects the minister to be out five or six nights a week visiting or at meetings, the minister will not have time in his schedule to read, write, or reflect….those sensibilities essential to effective preaching will remain uncultivated.” (106-7). One might argue specifics with Gordon, but he is basically just asserting we practice Acts 6:2.

Some Lutherans might object to T. David Gordon’s undertaking.  Gordon is not implying that we can help God, or that preaching is ultimately man’s work.  But Gordon has isolated several tendencies which he thinks get in the way of well-organized, clear, memorable preaching.  We affirm that the Word of God is living and active, that it accomplishes great things.  But if my sermon is so disorganized, dense, or cliché-ridden that my people do not fully hear me, am I not just a noisy gong?  On Pentecost, the Spirit gave men the ability to speak and hear the Gospel in their own tongues.  If it does not profit to hear the Gospel in a language I do not know, could we not go a step further and accept that poor communication means I am not as edifying a preacher as I could be?  Yes, sinful hearers will have itching ears.  But are fleshly expectations, Pietism, or the hearers always the only things to blame when the hearers do not benefit as much as they could from the sermon?

Gordon’s observations on mass media offer a profound social commentary in their own right; the book is worth reading for this alone.  We should be cautious of the way we consume social and electronic media, lest it hamper our ability to read and clearly proclaim God’s Word.  We should also take Reformed theologians on their own terms and appreciate what they might have to offer, rather than just using them as straw men.  Every preacher has room to grow.  Each can also help brother pastors improve their preaching skills.  Why Johnny Can’t Preach will invaluably assist the Lutheran preacher on all of these counts.

Mercy and Judgment

Mercy, like its divine companions love, justice, and righteousness, is frequently subject to creaturely appropriation. Easily mistaken for mere kindness (or worse, niceness), acts of mercy tend to be measured by the feelings they produce. Feelings are not irrelevant, but the object of mercy is something much more objective: need.

The story of the Rich Young Man in Mark 10 illustrates vividly the relationship between mercy and feelings. It becomes abundantly clear in the Gospels that Jesus is mercy incarnate – whenever he sees need, he is moved to compassion, and he acts to help. But our sensibilities about how that should look are disturbed when we observe that Jesus sees the young man’s need, is moved to compassion (“Jesus, looking at him, loved him”, v. 21), and then acts in such a way that the man departs sorrowfully. With no apparent regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a task that he finds to be impossible. Or perhaps you could say it this way: with every regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a singular opportunity to experience godly grief.

As much as the story cautions us against identifying mercy with niceness, it evokes an additional caution. You and I are not in the business of feelings, good or bad. The point is not that Jesus was wise to discern which kind of feelings would best suit the fellow. The point is that Jesus was wise to discern his need and acted to help. Jesus certainly possesses the key of knowledge. He knows what feelings to evoke and when, but that is not given to us. Instead, we ought to pray that we have eyes that see need and hearts that are moved to compassion and wills that choose to act accordingly.

It’s here that we can observe another, perhaps more subtle case of mistaken identity. Just as mercy is easily mistaken for niceness, judgment is easily mistaken for unkindness.  It’s the same problem of feelings – something that evokes negative feelings must be some measure of judgment and, therefore, cannot be mercy. But the relationship between mercy and judgment is not so inversely linear as you would assume.

Consider this remarkable pattern in Amos, in which acts of judgments are dealt to Israel time and again in an effort to stave off the graver, impending, final judgment. “I gave you cleanness of teeth … yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6). God withholds the rain, sends blight and mildew, inflicts pestilence, and overthrows the people, yet they did not return to him. “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (v. 12)! All along, every momentary affliction, every momentary judgment is, in fact, also an act of mercy in view of Israel’s most desperate need. It’s a desperate need of which they seem to be completely unaware: “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! . . . Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18, 20)? They hit the accelerator, not blindly, but aiming towards this fatal collision with God’s justice. Whether they fail to take his judgment seriously or they consider themselves to be righteous, the mercy of God intervenes. Paradoxically and scandalously his intervention is in the form of a temporal judgment.

Again, caution is warranted at this point. Although we do well to understand that mercy may come in the form of judgment, it’s not given to us to execute God’s judgment. It is given to us to announce his judgment, but always and only ever in the service of mercy. This commitment to mercy is exemplified by Amos. Even as he announces God’s final judgment and as God himself declares his intention to execute, Amos intercedes on behalf of the people: “O Lord GOD, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small! The LORD relented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the LORD” (Amos 7:2-3). Following that saintly example, every Christian has enough merciful work to do in prayer for the rest of his life.

Faithful in Mission, Part 1

This five-part series was originally presented at the North Dakota District Convention in January 2018.

Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to faithfulness, and being faithful includes being faithful to His calling. Jesus commands His Church to proclaim the Gospel of the Kingdom to the whole world. This, all by itself, should be enough for us to take up the task in our own generation. However, there are many competing definitions of what it means to carry out this mission. My goal is to consider what the Bible has to say about the mission of the Church with a view to putting it into practice. I am not proposing a program. Rather, belief translates into practice. It is not enough to say that we want to carry out the Lord’s mission without actually doing anything. John Charles Ryle, an Anglican bishop who lived in the nineteenth century, sums up this danger nicely when he comments on Matthew 10:16-23 that: “The extreme into which most men are liable to fall in the present day, is that of silence, cowardice, and letting others alone. Our so-called prudence is apt to degenerate into a compromising line of conduct, or downright unfaithfulness.” Ryle recognizes that we can go too far in the other direction as well, letting zeal get out of hand, but consider what he says. Are we being faithful to the Lord’s calling, or do we hope that someone else will do the work of a missionary in our place? Therefore, if we desire to keep the Lord’s command, what are we called to do? What does the Holy Spirit have to say to us about the mission of the Church? In order to discern the mind of the Spirit regarding this matter, I will examine a number of passages.

The first question we must ask is “Why?” Why do we go into the world to proclaim the Gospel? The most natural place to begin is also the most common: Matthew 28:18-20. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'” Because this passage is so well known, I want to make only a couple of observations. First, Jesus begins with a declaration of His authority, especially now that He has been glorified. This is not accidental. The Church goes to proclaim the Gospel on the authority of Christ. We are not the masters of this mission, but the servants tasked with doing our Master’s will. Our mission, therefore, does not begin with us, but with God. The Father sent His Son into the world, and the Son now sends us. To be in the body of Christ is to be sent just as He was sent. We are therefore unified in our mission to the world because we are one in Christ. Second, Christ commands the Church to make disciples of all nations. We commonly divide the mission of the Church into foreign missions and national or domestic missions. Each present their own unique set of challenges. However, such a division sometimes has an unintended side effect, because there is a tendency to emphasize foreign missions over those at home. It is easier to be concerned for the neighbor who lives far off than to be concerned for the neighbor next door. However, “all nations” includes our own parish and neighborhood. Mission work does not begin twenty miles from home. One does not need the title of “missionary” to do what the Lord calls us to do, and sometimes that can be as close as next door or even closer still. I am not disparaging foreign missions, of course. The Gospel must be preached to the whole creation. Yet let us not forget that our coworker or even our family member is a soul for whom Christ died, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us to talk about Jesus with someone we know well.