Jesus: Not a Part of Your Complete Breakfast
“Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” C. S. Lewis
I love that quote by Lewis. All too often church members have the idea that Christianity is supposed to be “moderate.” Or that you are able to be a Christian without ever appearing to be a fanatic to the world.
On the other hand, it’s important to remember that as true as this is, there are also those in the church who understand this and want to be fully devoted, passionate, and “sold out for Christ,” yet feel that they are not, and perhaps even are afraid about it.
They have good reason to feel that way, because God not only commands that we recognize Him as having chief claim on our lives. He commands us, “You shall have no other gods.” Jesus unpacks the first commandment this way: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and with all your soul.”
In the Small Catechism, Luther gives us a helpful summary of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should
in God above all things.”
It’s important to say what Lewis said. Christian congregations seem to have many members who sleepily think that being a Christian is supposed to fit into their lifestyle, instead of their lifestyle being altered [or completely re-styled] by their discipleship of Christ.
“Christianity is either of infinite importance or no importance. It cannot be moderately important.” That is a word that must be preached, clearly and often. It can be a comforting word, because we are set free from the impossible burden of trying to be a Christian and also be pleasing to our unbelieving peers and friends.
However, left there, it is the law, and “the law worketh wrath.” When it has its full effect, it will not produce truly passionate disciples of Jesus. It will either produce self-righteous hypocrites who terrorize the sheep of Christ. Or it will produce broken sinners who dangle over the precipice of despair, recognizing that Christianity is of ultimate importance while remaining unable to “fear, love, and trust” in the true God above all things.
It needs to be preached to contented and satisfied sinners. But to terrified sinners, who realize that they are not as fully committed to Christ as they ought to be (even if they are more committed than other people)–the Gospel needs to be preached. To them it needs to be said, “Your passion for Christ is insufficient. He knows that even though you believe in Him and love Him, your flesh prevents you from doing what you would, from loving Him as you ought to. But His passion for you is perfect and it is sufficient. He has loved you with perfect love, and His love made Him so dedicated and wholehearted about you that He suffered the death of the cross and the wrath of God and merited for you the full pardon of your sins. Even though the flesh prevents you from keeping the first commandment even now, you stand before God as having fulfilled it, because Jesus Christ, who feared, loved, and trusted God with His whole heart, and offered Himself to bear God’s terrible and righteous judgment.”
Evangelicals often fail to preach the second part clearly. Lutherans, in reacting against it, inadvertantly often make provision for the flesh of members who want Christianity to be part of a balanced, healthy American life in the 21st century, the way that sugary breakfast cereals were always “a part of this balanced breakfast” in tv advertisements when I was a kid (even though they had nothing in common with the healthy food they were placed next to.)
Lutherans are blessed to be aware of the proper distinction between law and gospel, which is vitally important when it comes time to motivate Christians to good works, as well as when it comes time to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Lately, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian church, who is somehow related to Billy Graham and is therefore twice over Evangelical royalty, has been posting on his blog about the distinction between law and gospel and the theology of the cross, which are distinctive motifs in Lutheran theology… [http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tullian/ ]
He is a teacher at a reformed seminary, so we might take exception to some of what it says, and yet I think we can thank God that these treasures of the Gospel are being articulated outside of Lutheran enclaves. [It may well be that he is unpacking the distinction between law and gospel better than many Lutherans can–including myself! I haven’t read them in depth but just been pleasantly surprised to see so much by him on it.]
However, I think we Lutherans often forget the reality that many of our members are not troubled, contrite sinners. Then unfortunately the Gospel is used as an anodyne to excuse the fact that I am not a follower of Christ. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was describing in the beginning of The Cost of Discipleship: forgiveness of sins as an a priori theory which makes discipleship and the following of Christ unnecessary.
No, the Gospel is for terrified sinners. This is why Luther got so upset with the antinomians who arose among the Lutherans after they had forgotten what things had been like before 1517. Luther realized that within a few years of being set free from the papacy, most of the people had forgotten what it was to be terrified of God’s law and judgment, and therefore needed sharp preaching of the wrath of God so that they would be contrite and ready to listen to the Gospel. If that happened so quickly in Luther’s day, we should to recognize that human nature today is the same, and now it is aided by a culture that has largely traded in moral judgments for therapeutic explanations.
No, evangelicals are right when they say, “Moderate Christianity is not really Christianity at all.” The death of Jesus on the cross is not a part of this balanced breakfast. The cross of Jesus is the tree of life. All our spiritual food and life and health come from it. The forgiveness of sins and eternal life won on the cross are given to us in the Word of God, Baptism and the true Body and Blood of Jesus in His supper.
At the same time, the death of Jesus on the cross for my sins is not a part of my salvation, of a balanced salvation consisting of God’s grace and work, along with a dash of my free willed choice to serve Him. Jesus’ death on the cross, God’s gracious will to save me, the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work in the means of grace to convert me and renew me; my salvation, my creation, my preservation in earthly life and the new life in Christ–they are all solely God’s gracious work.
So, don’t simply attempt to commit yourself to Jesus. To be sure, shake off your sloth and preach the law to yourself with its terrors. But more importantly, listen to His Gospel in which Jesus gives Himself to be our all in all–our wisdom, our justification, our sanctification (1 Cor. 1).
“But you, who were dead in your trespasses and sins, He made alive together with Christ–it is by grace you have been saved. And He raised us up with Christ and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 2:1-9)
“Since then you have been raised with Christ, set your mind on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God…For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, you also will appear with Him in glory. Put to death, therefore, your members which are on the earth…” (Colossians 3:1-5)
- Do I have true faith? Thoughts on Announcing For Communion, Self-Examination, and Infant Communion (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- De Profundis Clamavi Ad Te, Domine. (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- The Law in the life of Christians (geneveith.com)
- The specifics of what we believe don’t matter as long as we believe in Jesus. (lawgospelaction.wordpress.com)
- The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…Sermon on Luther’s Small Catechism, 3rd Article of the Apostles’ Creed (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- “The Secret Place of the Most High”. Lent Midweek Sermon. “What Benefits Does Baptism Give?” (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)