St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 5:1-11
July 20, 2014
“Christ’s Word Catches us Out of the Deep”
Listen to Elijah’s distress as he talks with God. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of armies.” But the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, killed your prophets. Now I am the only one left and they’re trying to kill me, too.
What good had all of Elijah’s jealousy for the Lord done? It hadn’t done anything to turn the tide of God’s people abandoning God. All Elijah could see was that the true public worship of God had been wiped out and the preachers of God’s Word had been killed.
Even though Elijah’s zeal and strength didn’t seem to win any battles, the mighty word of God Elijah preached was working—unseen by him. It had preserved a little remnant within Israel that had refrained from making sacrifices to false gods, giving worship to demons. And it was about to raise up kings and prophets who would destroy the powerful people who had taught the Israelites to worship Baal.
We are sunk in the depths of futility and death, but Christ’s word brings us up from the deep.
A couple of months ago Logia (a Lutheran theological journal) published an article I wrote about the faith of infants prior to baptism. Readers of this blog will be familiar with a lot of its content, but I’m grateful to Logia and especially its editor, Rev. Aaron Moldenhauer, for publishing it and working to get it ready for print. The article’s topic is one that I think needs wider exposure among Lutheran pastors. First of all, it gives profound comfort for Christian parents who lose children prior to Baptism. Secondly, it sheds light on theological controversies that have arisen among confessional Lutheran pastors in the past few years—in particular, the nature of infant faith and the question of infant communion. Finally, it challenges us, through the example of one particular question in pastoral care, to evaluate the degree to which contemporary confessional Lutheran theological assumptions diverge from those of the first generation of the Reformation.
The article examines a little book by Johannes Bugenhagen, a reformer who was also Luther’s pastor at the church in Wittenberg. The book, called On Unborn Children, seems not to have been widely known among Lutheran theologians in the last century or two. In it Bugenhagen sets out an argument for infant faith and infant baptism against Anabaptist objections. Then he turns to discuss the faith and salvation of infants which die before baptism.
Briefly, Bugenhagen argues that infants have the promise of salvation given to them by Christ when He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” On the basis of that word we are required to bring our infants to Christ in Baptism, since in Baptism Christ receives them and gives them faith and brings them into the kingdom of heaven.
But what happens to those who are not baptized? Bugenhagen argues that the promise of Christ—“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” still applies to unbaptized infants. They are brought to Christ and offered to Him through the prayers of parents and the church. And Bugenhagen’s contention is that such children, when they die prior to Baptism, are certainly saved and should be treated that way. Bugenhagen’s view was apparently also the view of Luther, who appended his more famous“Comfort for Women who have had a Miscarriage” to Bugenhagen’s book.
Bugenhagen’s approach to the question comes as something of a surprise to some confessional Lutherans. First of all it seems to imply that infants receive faith in Christ apart from the external Word, at least in the case of unbaptized infants. And that view, that unbaptized infants receive faith apart from the means of grace in response to the prayers of the church, was not only the perspective of Bugenhagen but also stated explicitly by the great theologian of the age of Lutheran orthodoxy, Johann Gerhard (see his A Comprehensive Explanation of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, published by Repristination Press).
Secondly, Bugenhagen’s approach seems largely unknown to confessional Lutheran pastors, who typically will point parents of unbaptized infants who die to the Word they heard while still in the womb instead of to the promise of Christ regarding little children and the efficacy of prayer.
Why does Bugenhagen’s book merit wider attention? First of all because of the comfort it gives grieving parents. Bugenhagen provides a certain comfort instead of a vague hope. He doesn’t tell grieving parents “Your miscarried child might be in heaven because you went to church and had family devotions and they might have believed what they heard in utero.” He says: “Your child is certainly with the Lord, because Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ And you brought your little child to Christ in your prayers. Besides this the church also interceded for your little one. And the Holy Spirit prayed within you with inexpressible sighs. And so your child was most certainly brought to Christ, who has promised that the kingdom of heaven belongs to infants who are brought to Him.”
Secondly, confusion about the nature of infant faith has been behind some theological controversy among Lutheran pastors in recent years. Relatively recently some furor erupted on the internet as liturgically-minded, confessions-subscribing pastors argued about the validity of infant communion. Neither party denied the reality of the faith of infants. But the failure of some pastors to understand the reason the reformers did not institute infant communion has something to do with this lack of clarity on how infants receive the Word of God and faith in Christ. According to Bugenhagen, infants receive Christ and the Gospel although they are not capable of being taught or understanding the contents of the Gospel. They are received because Christ promises to receive them, not because they have the same capacity for a faith that is capable of self-examination as adult Christians.
Finally, it invites us to look at the ways in which contemporary confessional Lutheranism may be narrower than the Lutheranism of the reformers and of the period of orthodoxy. Bugenhagen does not seem to understand the Smalcald Articles’ dictum No Spirit apart from the Word the same way many of us do. Moreover, he ascribes a great deal more to the prayers of believers than many contemporary Lutherans seem to find comfortable. Finally, his insistence that the purpose of theology is for the comfort of the afflicted consciences of believers challenges our tendency to simplify theology into slogans designed to easily identify heresy.
Bugenhagen’s book opens up a number of discussions it would be useful for confessional Lutherans to have. But my main hope in writing the article was and is that his approach to the comfort of parents who have lost children before baptism would become more widely known among Lutheran pastors.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546
from Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz
Lord Jesus Christ, please hurry and bring the blessed day when the hope of our glorious redemption shall be fulfilled. For you have called us to pray for this in the Lord’s Prayer: Thy Kingdom Come! Then, since you have commanded us to pray this, so also give us grace and help that we do pray it and in addition that we firmly believe that we will finally come to such glory. Grant also that the same joyful, blessed day of our redemption and glorification come soon, and that we may experience all that we now hear and believe in the Word. Amen.
This prayer was written in the 1600s, but it sounds like someone wrote it yesterday. From the Gebets-Schatz.
Lord Jesus Christ, though no one knows the hour of your appearing, not even the angels in heaven, but only the Father, who has reserved it for His power—still there will be an end to this world and its form will pass away. You will come with flames of fire to take vengeance on those who do not know You, God, and are not obedient to Your gospel. And so that we do not doubt this, You have allowed faithful hearts to know the signs of Your appearing and identified them. The world is now pregnant with these signs, giving certain proof that the end of all things is near. Great signs happen in the sun, moon, and the stars, which fall from heaven and lose their light. One hears of wars and rumors of wars. One nation is incensed with another and kingdom rises against kingdom. There are earthquakes in various places. It is a time of rising prices and famine. Unrighteousness more and more gets the upper hand. The brotherly love of many has grown cold. The times are so terribly wicked that the people are fearful and anxious. They faint and almost perish because of the tribulation and distress that is in the world.
In the church many people have risen up who speak perverted doctrine and falsify Your Word, and Your Word must still endure being called heresy by many. In the secular government power often passes for righteousness. Right is turned into gall and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood; evil is called good and good evil, black must be called white. In the household estate is great unfaithfulness, disobedience, disunity, discord, quarreling, and strife. Even though everyone in common leads a godless life, no one regards it as sinful. These are all signs of the approach of the last day.
Since these are all now hanging before our eyes, graciously help us, Lord, that we take it to heart, and not be secure, or be rash and have our lamps fail like the foolish virgins. Grant instead that we always be brave and pray, do good and not grow weary, that we might thereby escape Your strict judgment and sentence, and might be worthy to stand before Your holy face, when You will come in the clouds with great power and glory, and send Your angels to gather Your elect from the four winds, and from the end of the earth to the end of the heavens. Lord, we wait daily for Your salvation. Come now, O Lord Jesus. Make an end of all our misery and take us poor wretches, together with all believers, to paradise. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Amen. Georg Schimmer, 1652-1695
Oh my God, even though I am without doubt a poor sinner, nevertheless I am no sinner. I am a sinner in myself and outside of Christ, but in my Lord Christ and outside of myself I am no sinner. For He has paid for all my sins with His blood, as I firmly believe. I also have been baptized and received in it the true mark of Your salvation. I have been absolved of all my sins through God’s Word and declared free of sin, loosed and unbound. I have also been fed the true body and given to drink the true blood of my Lord Jesus Christ, as certain signs of grace. I have received forgiveness of sins, which my dear Lord Jesus Christ merited, won, and received for me through His precious blood. For this I thank Him in eternity. Amen.
Martin Luther 1483-1546
Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz
Johannes Eichorn 1511-1564
Lord Jesus Christ, to you be laud, honor, and thanks forever, here and in eternity, that you have so graciously quickened me, a poor, miserable sinner, with Your true body and blood. I pray You from the bottom of my heart that You would now be and remain powerful within me, and regard and receive me, Your poor little worm, with gracious eyes. Never again allow me to fall out of Your hands of grace. From henceforth so rule, lead, and guide me by Your Holy Spirit from in my calling and my whole life that I might not think, carry out, speak, or work anything against You, but instead at all times might look up to You, Your Word, and Your holy will. Even in the cross that you lay upon me grant me to be patient and willing and not murmur against You, nor against my neighbor, but instead let it remain as hard upon me as You make it and as it pleases You, while I await the gracious redemption and the eternal joy which you will give to all believers who trust in You and build upon You. Help, Lord Jesus, that my faith be strong and firm within me, and preserve me in the true doctrine and confession of faith, in humility, patience, and hope, until my final breath, that I may laud and thank You here and in eternity, You who are, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, true, almighty, eternal God, from eternity to eternity. Amen, Lord Jesus! Amen.
Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz
Oh my most heartily beloved heavenly Father, whom I love with my whole heart; O You righteous judge of the world, how awfully have I, a poor sinner, sinned against You! Oh, what have I done! How have I so completely and shamefully forgotten your holy commandments, your good deeds toward me, your hard threats against sins, Your terrible, secret judgment, that I have committed this great sin, over which I now fear day and night! Oh God, how frightened Is my soul, how my heart trembles, how must I now be ashamed of myself in my own conscience before You! What a deep abyss of sin and damnation I see before my eyes!
Now, Lord my God, oh dear Father, in this my anxiety I take refuge in childlike trust in your unfathomable, unmerited mercy, and pray You through Jesus Christ for grace. Oh, how many are my sins! How great is my debt, so very great that I can never, even in eternity, pay it! Still have patience with me, a poor sinner, and pay for my misdoings according to your superabundant mercy for Christ’s sake, who also has paid for me.
I have indeed done wrong and sinned very terribly. But it pains me to my heart, and on account of it I suffer daily, as You, O knower of hearts, see in me. Yes, now, O dear God, you will not cast out such a terrified and crushed heart. Yes, You are near to them who are of a crushed spirit, and you help those whose hearts are broken. Oh, then also do not cast me out! Heal, Lord, my stricken heart, my wounded conscience! Help me, a poor sinner, for the sake of Christ, and bind up my wounds. Yes, You are my Father, my Creator, and You know what kind of strength I have; you know that I am weak. Yes, Your Son Jesus Christ also has come into the world to save poor sinners, and His blood cleanses us from all sin. Oh God, thus do not allow the precious merit of Christ to be lost on me, a poor, sorrowful, repentant sinner.
Yes, you have promised that you do not desire the death of the sinner, but instead that he be converted and live. Now, dear God, I desire from my heart to repent by Your grace. You are acquainted with my heart and know that the sin I have committed is truly painful to me, and that I desire to improve myself. Oh, give me life and convert me, Lord, and I will be converted. Indeed, do not enter into judgment with me, and let me not perish in my affliction. Oh God, I am so shaken at times because of my sins that I don’t know where I should go and what I should do. O Lord, cast me not away from your countenance, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Free my feet from the net. Please forgive my misdeed, and let me receive joy and gladness through the power of Your Spirit, that the bones which You have broken may rejoice.
I find now that, as light as Satan previously made out the sin to be, in order to cast me into it, now so terrible and hard he makes it in my conscience in order to bring me to despair. O my God, forsake me not in such hard struggle. Let Your power be mighty in my weakness. Arm me with the power of your might, that in it I might stand against the cunning trials of the devil. Enlighten my eyes also, that I henceforth walk carefully and protect myself from similar sins.
Oh God, when You give joy to my heart with Your grace, how gladly I will to thank You, how diligently I want to improve my life through Your grace, how gladly will I teach other transgressors your ways, that sinners be converted to You. It shall be a warning to me, dear God, and I will protect myself from such plague of conscience for the rest of my life.
I hope in this, my God, that You are gracious, and my heart rejoices that You so gladly help and cast no one out who comes to You. Therefore I come to You now and pray You, be gracious to me, a poor sinner, for the sake of Your most dear Son, my only Savior and mediator Jesus Christ, who has promised that what we will ask in His name, the same You will also give to us, and who has commanded us to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
(Riegisches Gebetbuch, 18th century)
from Ev. Luth. Gebets-Schatz