Friday, April 8, 2011

A Lutheran Pastoral Theology

One of my favorite paintings is Lucas Cranach the Elder’s altar painting at the Marienkirche in Wittenberg (which happens to be the main at top, on this blog).  Pastor Luther is preaching from the pulpit to an attentive congregation of women, bearded men, and infant children.  Between the pulpit and the congregation is Jesus Christ hanging from the cross, with a crown of thorns, hands and feet struck through with nails, with flowing blood from his pierced side.  The preacher has his left hand on the Holy Scriptures, while his right hand points toward the crucified Jesus placed before the attentive congregation.  Luther is pointing toward Jesus, preaching of His works, and laying the Gospel richly upon the congregation.  He is not pointing toward himself and one wonders whether anyone in the congregation is able to see anything but Christ and Him alone.  Every ear and every heart is fixed on Jesus, especially the preacher.

I am reminded of John the Baptist, preacher of repentance and Christ, who points to Jesus saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  He later testifies that his joy is complete, acknowledging that the bride belongs to the bridegroom.  It is all about Jesus.  He must become greater and I must become less.  So it is with the pastor, that he directs all attention to Jesus who takes away the sin of the world.  Spiritual care begins and ends in the person of Jesus Christ. 

We are all sinners in this dying world.  The world has gone to hell in a hand basket since Adam and Eve cut themselves off from God’s life giving Word.  People come to church not as professional do-gooders but as professional sinners; real sinners who need a real Savior.  They are broken down, sick, and addicted to sin.  Preaching, catechesis, liturgy, and pastoral care are the ordinary means of bringing people into communion with God in Jesus Christ that grants life over death – and the final victory over sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus is the great physician of body and soul to heal us fully and release us from the bonds of sin and death.   

I firmly believe a pastoral care must proceed from a hearty confession of holy baptism.  Baptism must be the very foundation for a pastoral theology; for within it contains all that we truly need for this life – forgiveness of sins and deliverance from death and the devil.  Here the Christian is daily put to death and raised to new life before God.  The first time I was asked whether I was baptized was by a Lutheran pastor when I was 19 years old.  I was shocked that he would ask, for I came from a liberal reformed background in which baptism was seldom mentioned.  When I said I was, he smiled, and proceeded to tell me what I had received as a child.  When I saw that it was true from Scripture, I saw that the heavens were opened to me, a poor sinner.  For the first time I was instructed in the sacrament and found that it was not merely something in the rear view mirror but a heavenly flood of regeneration that was good for today and tomorrow, fully completed in death.  God had indeed granted me a promise in the externum verbum of Gospel, something I could truly rely on outside of myself, and the chaos of my own sinful heart.   

For the first time in my life a pastor pointed me toward what God had done for me in the blessed sacrament of baptism.  He pointed me to Jesus, who died for me, baptized me, and justified me through his innocent suffering, death, and resurrection.  All the religious authorities I had consulted prior to this Lutheran pastor had pointed me toward moral purity, metaphysical speculations, or mystic contemplations.  In my own seeking of God apart from Christ, with Luther, all I found was an unknowable God, wrathful, hidden, and indistinguishable from Satan.  All of these pursuits came up short to address the fundamental problem of sin and suffering.  Baptism and the preaching of Jesus Christ crucified for us poor sinners changed everything.  It was no longer I who was required to perform the verbs, but God himself was the doer and the justifier.  The content of a pastoral theology must introduce the hearer to Jesus and deliver His promise over to real sinners.  Therefore the true content of pastoral theology is the sinful human and the God who justifies.            

Given the centrality of baptism, I am constantly returning to Luther’s pastoral letters in which he very consistently and creatively thrusts baptism to the fore – right before the eyes and ears of those sin sick souls that he addresses.[1]  To a man troubled with election Luther urges him to say:

‘I have been baptized!  I believe in Jesus Christ.  I have received the Sacrament.  What do I care if I have been predestined or not?’  In Christ, God has furnished us with a foundation on which to stand and from which we can go up to heaven.  He is the only way and the only gate that leads to the Father.  If we despise this foundation and in the devil’s name start building at the roof, we shall surely fall.  If only we are able to believe that the promises have been spoken by God and see behind them the one who has spoken them, we shall magnify the Word.  But because we hear it as it comes to us through the lips of a man, we are apt to pay as little attention to it as to the mooing of a cow.[2]

Baptism must be the foundation of pastoral care.  Luther writes in his large catechism, “In baptism, therefore, every Christian has enough to study and practice all his or her life.  Christians always have enough to do to firmly believe what baptism promises and bring – victory over death and the devil, the forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts.”[3] 

Preaching, which proceeds from the foundational theology of baptism, is not a presentation of one’s intellectual gifts or personal magnetism.  It is the proclamation of the Gospel – of baptism - that men are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith and by way of pure gift.  Cranach’s altar painting of Luther preaching illustrates this better than anything else.  Luther is not illustrating or simply describing the life of Jesus.  He is rather preaching Jesus, actually handing him over to the hearer – his righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  For preaching is not merely descriptive but truly gives the gifts of which it speaks.  In the words of Forde preaching is the “act of election.”  It is the raising of the dead.  Preaching does expose the man as sinner and puts that man to death.  Preaching is the living voice of the Gospel (viva vox evangelii) that raises the dead to life and faith in the Gospel.  Forde describes his own discovery about the sacramental nature of preaching, a discovery that must be made by all evangelical preachers:

And so there was only one course of action left: I could only give them the treasure! Do it to them! I could only surprise them absolutely by daring to say to the hearers, ‘You lucky stiffs, you have stumbled unto it here and now because I am here to say that Jesus died and went into the blackness of death and still overcame for you.  I am here to say your sins are forgiven!  There it is!  The hidden treasure!  The kingdom of heaven.  The preachers has to have the audacity to believe that the very moment of the preaching is itself the sacrament, the audacity to claim that from all eternity God has been preparing for just this very moment and thus to say, ‘Here it is, it is for you![4]

Iwand in a similar way writes, “In the gospel it says: today, here, and now!  Today is the day of your salvation…The gospel says: he, whom you need, is present and is standing in your midst. ‘It is God who justifies…”[5]  Therefore the Gospel does not come as a new morality but brings a proclamation that the promise and fulfillment is in the here and the now.  Pastoral theology must hold that God does what He says and that He is not a liar.  It is God’s will that sinners believe in Jesus.  And it is God’s will that pastors preach the law in its sternness and the Gospel in its sweetness.  God desires that sinners receive the consolation of the Gospel that Christ brings.  God is committed to his creatures and He loves them, as is clearly seen through the life and death of His own son.  God speaks directly to us and addresses us through preaching and the consolation of the Gospel.  He is deeply entrenched in our lives.         

In the presence of Christ, humans beings are allowed to be sinners, for only in this way can they be helped.  Pastoral care ought to encourage a community that is at home confessing sins and receiving absolution.  There is nothing more alienating than to enter a church whose orientation is only toward the law and self-righteousness, where people are not centered around the sacraments and the forgiveness of sins.  Bonhoeffer writes of this sort of delusional community:

For the pious community permits no one to be a sinner.  Hence all have to conceal their sins from themselves and from the community.  We are not allowed to be sinners.  Many Christians would be unimaginably horrified if a real sinner were suddenly to turn up among the pious.  So we remain alone with our sin, trapped in lies and hypocrisy, for we are in fact real sinners.[6]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes “The goal of all spiritual care is the confession that we are sinners.  This confession actualizes itself preeminently in the confessional.  So the confessional is the essential focus for all spiritual care.  The invitation to confession is the invitation to become a Christian.”[7]  Exposing sin must be done in a gentle but honest way, for sin that remains in the dark and hidden within the human soul festers and stinks and takes violent possession of a man.  Satan wants to keep sins un-confessed and convince a man that the law and condemnation is the only word that applies to him, and that mercy does not extend to him.  Iwand writes, “Satan wants us to doubt and to despair of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  He seeks to delude us so that we no longer dare to believe in forgiveness and to think that the law only exists for us and that grace is not intended.”[8] 

Bonhoeffer later writes “Sin creates detritus in the soul.  The serpent must stick its head out of its hole in order for it to be clubbed.”[9]  Although Bonhoeffer no doubt has formal confession and absolution in mind here, I have come to appreciate the more ordinary ways in which sin is confessed and brought to light (not simply in the context of a more formal liturgy of confession and absolution).  Many informal conversations that take place between pastor and Christian often proceed from an eagerness to confess sins (whether knowingly or unknowingly)!  A pastor must have a keen ear and heart to listen to the tension of the human heart in its distress, and in time gently guide him toward a truthful confession, in turn speaking absolution.      

Confession of sins means the death of the sinner.  It is rarely (if ever) a particularly pleasant experience (though God does often grant us comfort by His Word).  It is not a therapeutic exercise, though relief may indeed be a fruit of the absolution.  It is the putting to death of the old Adam, exposing his secret sins – his pride, hatred, jealousy, arrogance, and exposing his idols – his incessant refusal to let God be God.  Though confession is a spiritual and even physiological need (Ps. 32:3), the catechumen needs some instruction in the art of self-examination and confession.  The 10 Commandments and table of duties (vocation) in the Small Catechism provide the essential diagnostic resources to make a confession of sins.  Most importantly they help guide the penitent to “confess those sins alone which we know and feel in our hearts.”  The art of self-examination and confession is learned through a lifetime of oratio, meditation, and tentatio – hearing, wrestling, and receiving God’s Word within the disorientation of Christian suffering and congregational life.

Although confession and absolution is located at the very center of pastoral care between pastor and penitent, I believe it must also be the normative activity of every Christian and household to exercise this gift among its own particular community.  St. John Chrysostom often called the household a “little church,” in that it exercises the holy gifts of forgiveness, love, and discipline.  Pastors, by catechesis and encouragement for daily prayer, should hand over the gift of absolution to the family.  Members of the household should receive instruction of learning how to confess to one another when they sin and to proclaim forgiveness.  The prayer office of compline can help center the Christian household around a vocabulary of confession, forgiveness – the peace may rule in the home.         

Forde writes, “The way of absolution, that is, for both God and the sinner, goes through death.  It is costly and dangerous, costly to God and dangerous to the sinner.  I expect the reason why modern theology has been so skittish about the way of absolution is just this cost and this danger.”[10]  That is to say, proclaiming absolution necessarily means that death is all around.  The sinner needs to be put to death and the new man, in Christ, needs to be called forth.  No theologian of glory has the stomach to come to terms with this.  And no theologian of glory is looking for God who dies in the place of sinners – it is indeed costly and dangerous.  The cross always puts things in perspective.  Sinners do not need a reworking or a ten step program.  The life of the Christian is a life of the cross, lived in death and resurrection.  Iwand notes the following from the blessed reformer, “Luther coined a famous formula that is essential for the newly given righteousness of man: peccator in re, iustus in spe! (sinner in reality, righteous in hope).  This formula means that we are sinners in the reality of our existence, but righteous in the hope that we have in God.”[11]  This insight means that pastoral care also points toward the resurrection of the dead, which we daily confess in the creed.  In this way “pastoral success” and “church growth” means in its finality burying a Christian into his grave.      

The great consolation and joy of the Christian is that we are able to hear the final judgment ahead of time: righteous, innocent, and blessed – His very own.  Iwand writes, “What happens in this event, in the death and intervention of Jesus for our sins, is not something that occurs contemporaneously, but it is an end-time event.  The righteousness that Christ brings is dedicated to us finally and conclusively at the time of the last judgment.”[12]  A pastoral theology and care should not be afraid to proclaim this message through preaching, administration of the sacraments, catechesis, and individual consolation.


[1] It is apparent for me that Luther’s finest theology can be mined from his letters of pastoral care.
[2] Tapper, Theodore, Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel (Vancouver, British Columbia: Regent College Publishing, 1995), 122.
[3] Large Catechism 4:41-42; Kolb Wengert, 461.
[4] Forde, Gerhard. The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub Co, 2007. 157. Print.
[5] Iwand, Hans J. The Righteousness of Faith according to Luther. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008. 41-42. Print.
[6] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Geffrey B., Daniel W., and James H. Life Together Prayerbook of the Bible. Fortress Press, 2004. 93. Print.
[7] Jay C. Rochelle, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Spiritual Care (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 60.
[8] I wand, p. 49.
[9] Ibid., 63.
[10] Forde, Gerhard. The Preached God: Proclamation in Word and Sacrament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Pub Co, 2007. 157. Print.
[11] Iwand, p. 73.
[12]Ibid., p. 78.  

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