Each day a new faith and a new man
This is fascinating and amazing. Below I’ve quoted from Luther’s Church Postil for this week—that is, his sermon on the Gospel for the 21st Sunday after Trinity. I notice two things in this; first of all, Luther describes the work God does to strengthen faith as destroying the old faith and giving a new faith, which in turn creates a new man.
This adds a new dimension to what the catechism means when it says: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us, should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that daily a new man should emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
I always thought that meant that just as the same Old Adam must be drowned every day, so the same new man—Christ in me or me as a new creation in Christ—also arises every day. But it seems as though Luther is saying that a new me arises each day from my baptism. (Or better, a new me must arise every day from Baptism, or faith perishes.) After all, my old Adam doesn’t remain static either. He gets worse and more poisonous every day; I become more wicked in the flesh each new day. Unbelievers do not become better as they get older. Experience shows that the little sins of childhood develop into terrible character flaws in adulthood. But even when people appear to get better as they get older, the heart doesn’t get any better. It becomes hardened in idolatry and self-trust, even when outward behavior seems to improve.
So a new man has to arise and emerge every day—not as though (at least, so it seems from the following passage from the sermon) we are going around in a circle from static old Adam to perfected new creature in Christ, but rather every day old Adam is drowned and I have a new skin and am stronger in faith. This is what it seems like Luther is saying in the Large Catechism:
Lastly, we must also know what Baptism signifies, and why God has ordained just such external sign and ceremony for the Sacrament by which we are first received into the Christian Church. 65] But the act or ceremony is this, that we are sunk under the water, which passes over us, and afterwards are drawn out again. These two parts, to be sunk under the water and drawn out again, signify the power and operation of Baptism, which is nothing else than putting to death the old Adam, and after that the resurrection of the new man, both of which must take place in us all our lives, so that a truly Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, once begun and ever to be continued. For this must be practised without ceasing, that we ever keep purging away whatever is of the old Adam, and that that which belongs to the new man come forth. 66] But what is the old man? It is that which is born in us from Adam, angry, hateful, envious, unchaste, stingy, lazy, haughty, yea, unbelieving, infected with all vices, and having by nature nothing good in it. 67] Now, when we are come into the kingdom of Christ, these things must daily decrease, that the longer we live we become more gentle, more patient, more meek, and ever withdraw more and more from unbelief, avarice, hatred, envy, haughtiness.
68] This is the true use of Baptism among Christians, as signified by baptizing with water. Where this, therefore, is not practised, but the old man is left unbridled, so as to continually become stronger, that is not using Baptism, but striving against Baptism. 69] For those who are without Christ cannot but daily become worse, according to the proverb which expresses the truth, “Worse and worse-the longer, the worse.” 70] If a year ago one was proud and avaricious, then he is much prouder and more avaricious this year, so that the vice grows and increases with him from his youth up. A young child has no special vice; but when it grows up, it becomes unchaste and impure, and when it reaches maturity, real vices begin to prevail the longer, the more.
71] Therefore the old man goes unrestrained in his nature if he is not checked and suppressed by the power of Baptism. On the other hand, where men have become Christians, he daily decreases until he finally perishes. That is truly to be buried in Baptism, and daily to come forth again. 72] Therefore the external sign is appointed not only for a powerful effect, but also for a signification. 73] Where, therefore, faith flourishes with its fruits, there it has no empty signification, but the work [of mortifying the flesh] accompanies it; but where faith is wanting, it remains a mere unfruitful sign.
This is why I don’t understand what Dr. Scaer was talking about in his paper at the free conference today in New Ulm criticizing the idea that Christians grow in sanctification. But that’s another post.
So anyway, read this passage and see how Luther talks about becoming a new creature in Christ:
9. Therefore you should not imagine it is enough if you have commenced to believe; but you must diligently watch that your faith continue firm, or it will vanish; you are to see how you may retain this treasure you have embraced; for satan concentrates all his skill and strength on how to tear it out of your heart. Therefore the growth of your faith is truly as necessary as its beginning, and indeed more so; but all is the work of God. The young milk-faith is sweet and weak; but when long marches are required and faith is attacked, then God must strengthen it, or it will not hold the field of battle.
10. Therefore this man would not have been helped by the faith he had at first; he would have been forced to retreat had not Christ come and strengthened him. But how did he strengthen him? The nobleman believed, if he came to him in his house, he could surely heal his son. Then Christ gave him a rebuke, a bitter and hard answer: ”Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will in no wise believe.” With these words he gives faith a scornful rebuff that it can not stand. The poor man was terrified and his faith at once began to sink and to vanish, therefore he says:
”Sir, come down ere my child die.”
11. As if he would say: Yes, you must hasten and come and yourself be present, or my son will die. Here Christ now bestows upon him a stronger faith, as God does upon all whom he strengthens in faith, and raises him thus to a higher degree or plain that he may become strong and believe in a different way than he did before; and he speaks thus to the father:
”Go thy way; thy son liveth.”
12. Had he thus said to him before that his son would live he would have been unable to believe; but now he believes when faith springs forth in his heart and begets in him another faith, so that he becomes a different man.
Who destroyed his faith?
According to Luther: it was Jesus. Jesus had to knock down the ruler’s weak faith that required Jesus to be bodily present to heal his son. But earlier Luther has written that the man’s faith was true faith; it was pleasing to Christ, it would have taken him to heaven.
However, faith has to continually increase, says Luther, otherwise in the day when the devil attacks it will not hold firm. It will surrender or back down. So Jesus gives the ruler a blow to his faith. “…but when long marches are required and faith is attacked, then God must strengthen it, or it will not hold the field of battle….Then Christ gave him a rebuke, a bitter and hard answer: “Except ye see signs and wonders, you will in no wise believe.” With these words he gives faith a scornful rebuff that it can not stand. The poor man was terrified and his faith began at once to sink and vanish…”
Jesus destroyed the old, but imparted a new faith. “Here Christ now bestows upon him a stronger faith, as God does upon all whom he strengthens in the faith, and raises him thus to a higher degree or plain that he may become strong and believe in a different way than he did before; and he speaks thus to the father: ‘Go thy way; thy son liveth.’ Had he thus said to him before that his son would live he would have been unable to believe, but now he believes when faith springs forth in his heart and begets in him another faith, so that he becomes a different man.”
So just as the gift of justifying faith in the first place makes us “new and different men” as Luther famously wrote somewhere, so the increase of faith makes us different men than we were before and gives us “another faith” than we had before.
This would explain why it is that many times, upon hearing the gospel or being absolved, it seems as though all my earlier faith had not been real and that this was the first time I had ever tasted it.
Faith as Holding the Field
The other day I was talking to Senkbeil on the phone about a particular trap I’ve been trapped in by the devil over and over again with regard to accusations about my vocation as a pastor. The trap runs sort of like this: my thoughts, where the devil attacks me, say, “Yes, the Gospel is true, Christ is the propitiation for our sins, but you have made it so that people cannot hear the Gospel because of your sins, and therefore you have failed as a pastor.” This is a variation on the theme that says the same thing but ends with “and therefore you are damned.” Or the one that plagued me through my childhood, “Yes, Jesus died for sinners, but only those who believe will be saved, and those who believe do good works, and you do not bear the fruit of the Spirit. Therefore you do not have faith and you are damned.”
So Senkbeil said that rather than, “Yes the Gospel is true, but you’re an ass” or “Yes the Gospel is true, but you are an arrogant liar” I should stop with, “Yes, the Gospel is true.” Since it is true, I am justified, and I am not damned, and the Lord “has made me competent as a minister of the new covenant.”
After that I started thinking about all the times the black clouds have rolled in and I start thinking about how I’m kidding myself, deluding myself, that I’m really a Christian since I know the way things really are in my life; if I were really a Christian, wouldn’t I have more of a grip on my life? Just to name some sins that I dare to speak about in public—wouldn’t I not turn my office into a raging disaster of a pigsty every week or two? Wouldn’t I be a better husband, father? Wouldn’t I be more compassionate with people at St. Peter instead of getting angry or frustrated? Wouldn’t I get places on time instead of ridiculously late? The list goes on into many sins I do not discuss with anyone except my confessor.
What I started thinking was that those thoughts that buzz like a swarm of bees through my brain and my soul are from hell. But faith is like a little kid walking through the playground with a bunch of candy, and he knows that there is a bully there who is going to come and try to take that candy, and when the bully arrives and demands the candy he says, “No.”
That is the way Luther describes it in this section. You go to confession or the Lord’s Supper and you go away with joy in your heart because Jesus has just unilaterally and unequivocally declared your sins dead and gone. You are walking along with this treasure, but eventually something happens—internally or externally—to tell you that you may not keep believing that your sins are gone.
When I think about it, that has been a constant, regular part of my life as a Christian in adulthood. By regular I mean weekly or every few weeks. If not more often.
Around 19 or 20 I was wandering down Broadway on Capital Hill in Seattle and a guy with a long beard came up and was talking to me about Jesus. He was walking with a bike and I think he had an apron on over his pants and shirt. At that point in my life I would have been angry about some guy talking to me about Jesus, but this guy had a long beard and told me that he had sold all of his possessions and travelled around the country with some other like-minded Christians. So I thought, “Well, that’s cool, at least this guy is really following Jesus’ teachings instead of comforting himself with a fake Christianity that allows you to be fat and rich and self-righteous like all the other Christians.”
Weirdly, though, a weeks or months later I had undergone a “conversion.” It was precipitated by emotional crisis and I was still far from steady, but I had radically reversed course in terms of how I was living my life and had begun reading the bible constantly and praying constantly. I had just started attending the University of Washington and I was walking in Red Square and saw the guy again. And I went up to him and said, “Hey, I became a Christian!” thinking he would be excited with me. But he looked at me and said, “Oh, have you joined the worldly church?” Then he informed me that Jesus said you had to give up everything you had to be His disciple, that it was certainly sinful and vain to go to college, and that if I really wanted to be saved I would need to do what he was doing—sell all my possessions, quit college, leave my family, and follow Jesus.
It’s probably a measure of how emotionally unstable I was, but I took it to heart. At the time my thinking was, “I failed as a Christian when I was a kid because we weren’t really living as disciples of Jesus. So now I have to seriously live as a Christian. I have to allow nothing to come before Christ.” So when this guy told me this I was terrified because the Scripture did appear to say what he said it did. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother….and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” “Sell your possessions and give to the poor…provide yourselves purses that will not wear out, a treasure in the heavens that does not fade away…”
I was terrified and I went through agony, because I thought—I should be willing to give up everything to follow Jesus, but what if I’m just insane? That was my big fear—I was afraid that in leaving college and becoming homeless I wouldn’t be headed to heaven; I would just be nuts. Then that night I was reading the Bible and happened to read in Daniel about how Daniel learned all of the wisdom of the Babylonians, and I was relieved, because that seemed to me irrefutable evidence that the guy had not understood the Scripture correctly.
The point is—no sooner had I begun to believe that my sins were forgiven, the devil came to terrify me with something that would make me renounce Christ alone. If I had gone and joined that guy and the cult he was a part of, I would have been led away from Christ, like the Galatians, to trust in something in addition to Christ.
So faith is to hold the field and refuse to let Christ and the confidence of salvation be stolen from you. I always had a different notion about faith—that faith somehow produced works which would allow you not to be scared away from the Gospel. I think that is how evangelicals often present faith. Faith saves you because when you ask Jesus into your heart you are transformed. You might have some times of weakness, but for the most part from the time you are truly converted you are new and everything is different.
But instead faith is more like presuming to defy Satan and refusing to submit to his authority. You say, I am free from Satan’s rule and I am not going to be damned but dwell among the saints in eternal joy even though I never did anything in my life except earn God’s furious wrath. You say that not because you see any evidence, any indisputable evidence, in yourself, that you are a saint. Rather, you interpret your life as having good fruit because you hold to the Gospel that Christ was crucified for you and that the Father’s wrath is turned away from you.
But when you do that, Satan comes to trick you, like Luther says, and snatch faith from your heart. Trickery is really the right word, because he is tempting you not to believe the Word of God, which declares you forgiven. But it does not feel at all like trickery when Satan does that. Instead, Satan is impersonating God, and he pretends to say, as God, “I am furious with you. You have not yet seriously repented. How dare you claim eternal life for yourself!” It doesn’t feel like trickery. It feels like an assault, like you by believing that your sins are forgiven were actually just asserting the old idolatrous self-confidence of the flesh. Also it is terrifying to be threatened with God’s wrath.
Luther says that at that point faith must hold the field. It has to hold on to what it already has, but it can’t do it unless God strengthens it. This is why Hebrews says “do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what is promised.” (Heb. 10: 35-36) Again, I always thought the endurance to which it was referring was primarily the endurance of not giving into the flesh, not committing willful sin. But instead, it seems really to be talking about endurance in believing Christ’s promise, endurance in boldly saying “My sins are forgiven, even though I am still a great sinner.”
Really, the New Testament says this over and over again.
“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard…” Colossians 1:21-23
“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you….if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” John 15:3-4, 7
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32
On the other hand, the New Testament also describes falling from faith as “backing down” or “retreating” or “yielding.”
“to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” Galatians 2:5
“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principle of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Galatians 4:8-9
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. “ Galatians 5:1
Faith is to refuse to submit to accusations and to hold to Christ, and thereby to hang on to eternal life, forgiveness of sins, the kingdom of heaven.
This is probably more than enough, but it has been comforting to me, because I am always thinking—you cannot take Christ as your own—look at your life! And then I do and start to wonder whether I’m kidding myself.
That is why when I hear members of the congregation say, “I don’t need to go to private confession; I already know I’m forgiven,” or “It’s not necessary for us to have services so often,” or “It’s not necessary for us to receive Holy Communion every week,” or, “I don’t need to go to Bible class,” or “my kids don’t need to go to catechesis for four years—don’t you think that’s a little much?” –I get angry. I should be more patient. But you’ve got to be kidding me! I only write this because I see that I’m at 3 and a half thousand words and no one will read this far, but this has got to be a joke. Once a parishioner told me, “I don’t question my salvation or have terror of conscience or doubts like you act like we’re supposed to have in all of your sermons.” Well, if I was a better pastor, probably I would be able to see through what people are saying to what is really going on, but instead I think, “Man, that’s got to be great to have such a strong faith.”
What do we mean by “need” or “necessary”? Is it necessary to go to be absolved privately or to attend a midweek service or to receive the precious body and blood of Jesus every week as a work that is required for salvation? No, it’s not. Do I need the Holy Spirit to strengthen my weak faith and enable me to stand firm against the devil? Absolutely. Do I need it a lot? Unquestionably. Do I need God’s grace, His forgiveness, far more than I am aware of? Yes!
Do the kids at St. Peter need 4 years of catechesis? No. They need 14 years of catechesis, and then they need as many more years of catechesis as they have years of life. If they go to St. Peter school, they get 9 years of catechesis. If not, they get 2. Just like they did 100 years ago, and a hundred years ago people would have been embarrassed if they brought their kids to catechesis and they didn’t know any bible stories and knew nothing of the catechism. A hundred years ago they didn’t have ipods and download music so full of cursing, murder, and graphic sex that their parents are ashamed when the kids try to play the song for the pastor. A hundred years ago the kids would have been ashamed and wouldn’t have even thought about playing it in front of him.
I doubt we could find 5 people in my congregation that could recite the catechism from memory (I can think of three or maybe 4 right now that probably could, so maybe we have five). If ten percent of the people on a given Sunday could say the ten commandments (without the explanation) from memory, I would be surprised.
I fear for the congregation when this precarious apathy towards the word of God continues to have such strength in our midst. It is a precarious apathy because it appears far more likely to teeter into hostility toward the word than into joy and zeal. But my hope is that for many people it is weakness instead of hardness. Still, as Luther says in this sermon, faith has to be growing continually or it dies. Otherwise it will be ambushed and overthrown. But when faith endures Satan’s attacks, we hold the field. Jesus has robbed satan’s house and given us the treasure, and when Satan comes to get it back, the faith that is strengthened by God defies Satan and holds on to eternal life. To quote Luther:
“Therefore you should not imagine it is enough if you have commenced to believe; but you must diligently watch that your faith continue firm, or it will vanish; you are to see how you may retain this treasure you have embraced; for satan concentrates all his skill and strength on how to tear it out of your heart. Therefore the growth of your faith is truly as necessary as its beginning, and indeed more so; but all is the work of God. The young milk-faith is sweet and weak; but when long marches are required and faith is attacked, then God must strengthen it, or it will not hold the field of battle.”
Through might of ours can naught be done
Soon were our loss effected.
But for us fights the valiant One
Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this?
Jesus Christ it is!
Of Sabaoth Lord
And there’s none other God
He holds the field forever.
Faith holds Jesus’ victory for its own. The devil tries to make me back down from my claim that Christ’s victory and everything He has is mine. Jesus, strengthen my faith so that I will not back down, but look my sins in the face and say, “I am righteous before the face of God, and no one can condemn me, because Jesus has buried you, sins.”