The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church
by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt
First, a few words about the “sad” alumni of Christianity.
Many of these people were broken by the church. I know that sounds harsh. As Christians, it’s bothersome to hear words like that. But for many people, this is how they really see what has happened to them.
Now almost certainly many of us have also had contact with people who have struggled for their whole lives with being deeply upset psychologically. The church, for whatever reasons, draws people who the professionals recognize as “bipolar” or wrestling against what they call “clinical depression.” Or whose guilt is so great that they are inwardly immobilized, people who are so frightened that just coping day by day is truly heroic. But it is not about any of these people that I will be speaking tonight. I am not competent to do so. It seems to me that such people deserve all of the care and empathy that we can muster. But, again, it is not about such people that I am speaking tonight.
By the “sad alumni” of the Christian faith, I mean the hundreds and hundreds whose acquaintance with the Christian church was often one in which they were helped to move from unbelief (or from a suffocating moralism) into real saving faith in Jesus Christ. They heard the preaching of God’s law and then heard the announcement of Christ’s work on their behalf on the cross – Jesus as the God-man who met the law’s demands for them, and died for their sin, died to save them, died to give them eternal life. They heard the wonderful message of God’s grace in the cross and death of Jesus Christ. They heard the astonishing news that God in Jesus Christ died for them, died so that they can be — and are! – freely forgiven based solely on that atoning death. They heard that Christ’s blood redeems sinners, buys us out of our self-chosen enslavement. They came to believe that Christianity is not so much about what is in our hearts as much as it is about what is in God’s heart – and this proven by Christ’s vicarious and atoning death for them, for their sin. They came to believe that the cross of Christ was their salvation. For free. And forever.
But something happened after that, something that broke them. And, in general, I think what happened is nameable. (At least in many cases.)
In my Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, we would speak of it as the confusion of law and Gospel. Dr. Charles Manske, the founding president of Christ College Irvine, used to teach a course in Christianity for freshmen. In that course, he characterized the various churches of Christendom this way:
- Rome: law
- Lutheran: law–Gospel
- Wesleyan evangelical: law–Gospel–law
I think Dr. Manske was definitely “on to something” here, and I think it is that third point that results in a lot of “sad alumni” of Christianity.
Now if you are Lutheran or Reformed, we too have a category that, if not done carefully and well, will turn out just as destructive as any Wesleyan, Pentecostal or Nazarene preaching. I am referring, of course, to “the 3rd use of the law.” (In Lutheran theology, the content of this “third use” of the law is spelled out in a section of our Book of Concord – specifically in what we call “the Formula of Concord.”) If you are Reformed, you will recognize this category immediately, recognize it as tracing back to John Calvin himself. Too, if I am correct, in what Calvinist Christians call the “Three Forms of Unity”: the Canons of the Synod of Dort, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Confession? If I am wrong on this one (not being “Reformed”), I apologize for an inaccurate characterization of your position.
What do we Reformation folk mean by “the third use of the law?” It claims to be primarily informative, informative for the Christian. And something which fleshes out “What is the will of God for me as a Christian day-by-day?” (What about the law thundering to us that we are deeply fallen, unable to fix our problem? That we are guilty before a holy God and His holy law, that unless God does something one-sidedly to rescue us, we are without hope and certainly condemned? That we from the Reformation call “the second use” of the law, the “pedogical use.” Luther thought this was the major function of the law in the Bible, designed to drive us to despair of our character, our works, our anything! And to drive us to Jesus Christ as the atoning, dying Lamb/Substitute for our sin — mine and yours, too.)
At any rate, if we Reformation folk do the “third use of the law” badly, we get very close to the infamous “application section” of the sermon so common in Wesleyan & evangelical preaching. And if we do it badly, the sensitive Christian believer can be driven to a slavery as bad as any slavery done to them by a totalitarian dictator. If the Ten Commandments were not impossible enough, the preaching of Christian behavior, of Christian ethics, of Christian living, can drive a Christian into despairing unbelief. Not happy unbelief. Tragic, despairing, sad unbelief. (It is not unlike the [unhappy] Christian equivalent of “Jack Mormons” – those who finally admit to themselves and others that they can’t live up to the demands of this non-Christian cult’s laws, and excuse themselves from the whole sheebang.) A diet of this stuff from pulpit, from curriculum, from a Christian reading list, can do a work on a Christian that is (at least over the long haul) “faith destroying.” You might be in just this position this evening. Many of us have friends whose story is not a far cry from this. We all regularly rub shoulders with such “alumni of the Christian faith” – sad that the Gospel of Christ didn’t (for them, at least) “deliver the goods,” didn’t “work.”
In a Christian context, the mechanism of this can be, I think, a very simple one:
1. You come to believe that you have been justified freely because of Christ’s shed blood.
2. Freely, for the sake of Jesus’ innocent sufferings and death, God has forgiven your sin, adopted you as a son or daughter, reconciled you to Himself, given you the Holy Spirit, and so on. Scripture promises these things.
3. Verses like “Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” seem now – at first read – to finally be possible, now that you are equipped for it.
o Or you hear St. Paul as he writes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Same thing.
4. You realize that you might have had some excuse for failure when you were a pagan. But that’s over. Now you have been made a part of God’s family, have become the recipient of a thousand of His free gifts.
5. And then, the unexpected. Sin continues to be a part of my life, stubbornly won’t allow me to eliminate it the way I expected.
6. Continuing sin on my part seems to be just evidence that I’m not really a believer at all. If I were really a believer, this thing would “work!”
We start to imagine that we need to be “born again again.” (And often the counsel from non-Reformation churches is that this intuition of ours is true.) Try going again to some evangelistic meeting, accept Christ again, surrender your will to His will again, sign the card, when the pastor gives the “altar call,” walk the aisle again. Maybe it didn’t “take” the first time, but it will the second time? And so forth.
How do I know this one “from the inside?” (You might be able to tell that I don’t have to search for words? And you’re right.) I was brought up in a pietistic Norwegian Lutheran church. For those of you who haven’t heard the term, “pietism,” it began with certain Lutherans (Arndt, Spener, and others) who wanted a more “living Christianity” than seemed to be taught and encouraged in their Lutheran parishes in Germany. But it was as close as Lutherans in Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and America ever came to being just like teutonic or Scandanavian outposts of Biola or Wheaton College! The Reformation emphasis on Christ outside of us, dying for us, and on the justification of sinners “gratis” was de-emphasized. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were deemphasized. Instead, the emphasis shifted to the individual’s experience of conversion, and to the victorious life of the true Christian day-by-day.
[See the Christian History issue on “Pietism” [for a more positive presentation of it than I would give. See also The Pieper Lectures, Vol. 3: “Pietism and Lutheranism,” ed. John A. Maxfield. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Historical Institute [and] The Luther Academy, 1999. [Dr. Ronald Feuerhahn’s essay is, I think, much more realistic about the problems pietism inevitably causes the believer.]
My church’s pietism made me an agnostic by the time I was a senior in high school. The “evangelical” parish of your youth might have had the same result in your case. How so? Well, imagine a Sunday School curriculum filled with Bible stories designed to teach a moral point with every lesson. Beware Sunday School curricula! That stuff is dangerous to children! One of the happiest days of my life was the morning when, standing in the church narthex, my wonderful father delivered me out of Sunday School!
One Sunday morning, I came from Sunday School to meet my folks. My dad (I still remember where each of us was standing in the narthex, remember which sport coat he was wearing that day!), said to me, “How was Sunday school?” I answered, “O.K., I guess.” He saw written on my face how it was going, and he said, “How would you like to quit going?” I immediately answered, “Dad, I’d love to quit Sunday school!” He said, “Well, why don’t you? Come in and sit with me in the adult class.” (I didn’t understand a tenth of what they were talking about, but I was ecstatic to just sit next to him during that hour each Sunday.)
My father had – with a single stroke! – delivered me out of the hands of greyhaired women trying to make me more moral, and using Bible stories to do it! It was like escape from prison! He had again made my life happier (it was not the last time, by any measure, either!) But it really wasn’t the fault of those grey-haired Sunday School teachers, either. It was the theology they were assigned to teach. It was the curriculum, the content of the lessons they were assigned to teach us kids. Such Sunday School materials should have never been allowed to make it into our parish.
The Home of the Lecture and Permissions Can be Found at 1517 The Legacy Project
The Citation link to White Horse Inn, Inc. blog mentioned above where I first obtained the transcript and other media for Dr. Rosenbladt’s sermon “The Gospel For Those Broken By The Church” – Dad Rod Thursdays – The Gospel For Those Broken By The Church