The Gospel for Those Broken by the Church
by Dr. Rod Rosenbladt
Now even though I am not Reformed, and don’t speak “Reformed” very well, let me see if I can use a couple of categories from The Heidelberg Catechism to guess how you might have the same dynamic and its problems (at least when executed badly)?
Think of the paradigm of “Guilt – Grace – Gratitude.” Don’t you have the same sort of problem that we Lutherans had with pietism (at least when the paradigm is executed badly)? If I am elect and regenerate, why is it that my gratitude is so small, so lacking on a daily basis? “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get!” Or, “If I really were elect, my life would certainly reflect that fact more than it does.” “Maybe I’m just fooling myself. Maybe I’m not really elect – because the peace, the joy, the confidence Paul says the Christian is to have (and that other Reformed believers seem to talk about) I don’t have. I’d be lying if I said I did. Maybe I never was part of the elect, and I’m still not?”
And for those of you who are Wesleyans, you are in this mess “up to your eyeballs.” Wesley’s charge to his pastors was very clear. They were called to (1) evangelize pagans (something for which Wesley gets an “A” in my book!) and (2) to urge their parishioners on to Christian perfection (something for which Wesley deserved an “F” — at least in the way he executed it, preached it to Christian believers!) Sunday after Sunday of exhortation (that is, law). If it’s of any comfort to you Wesleyans, you can blame us Lutherans for a lot for this stuff! (We Lutherans try to blame the Strasbourg Reformed for Lutheran pietism, but I’m not so sure we didn’t do it “all on our own steam.”) Through Nicolas von Zinzendorf at Herrenhut and Peter Böhler, we Lutherans bequeathed a lot of this mess of ours to Wesley. I wish I could say that it all came from Wesley’s reading of the church fathers, from reading William Law and others like Law, but I can’t. In fact, it was we Lutherans who managed to corrupt all sorts of denominations with this junk — not just our own Lutheran churches, but also the free churches, the brothers Wesley, Cotton Mather in the New World (about Jonathan Edwards I don’t know) — this stuff knew (and knows) almost no bounds! And almost all of it traces to Lutheran Germany in an earlier century. If this stuff was done to you in some “Protestantish” church, I apologize to you. We Lutherans might just have been the ones who bequeathed it to your denomination, to your pastor’s seminary profs. At any rate, if I’m right here, I’m sorry.
For our purposes this evening, the upshot is always the same: broken, sad ex-Christians who finally despaired of ever being able to live the Christian life as the Bible describes it. So they did what is really a sane thing to do: they left! The way it looks to them is that “the message of Christianity has broken them on the rack.” To put it bluntly, it feels better to have some earthly happiness as a pagan and then be damned than it feels to be trying every day as a Christian to do something that is one continuous failure — and then be damned anyway. Trust me on this one. This is how things look.
It seems to me that the key question here is a very basic one: Can the cross and blood of Christ save a Christian (failing as he or she is in living the Christian life) or no?
I hope that most of us would say that the shed blood of Christ is sufficient to save a sinner? All by itself, just Christ’s blood, “nude faith” in it, “sola fide”, “faith without works”, “a righteousness from God apart from law,” a cross by which “God justifies wicked people,” etc. So far, so good, right?
But is the blood of Christ enough to save a still-sinful-Christian? Or isn’t it? Does the Gospel still apply, even if you are a Christian? Or doesn’t it? It seems to me (1) that the category “sinner” still applies to me, (2) that the category “sinner” still applies to you, (3) that the category “sinner” still applies to all Christians. (If you are a Wesleyan and have reached perfection, what I have to say here doesn’t, of course, apply to you.) But for the rest of us, it seems that what Luther said of the Christian being “simultaneously sinful and yet justified before the holy God” is critical. Is what Luther said Biblical? Or isn’t it? Is it Biblical to say that a Christian is “simul justus et peccator” or no? Are we Christians saved the same way we were when we were baptized into Christ, or when we came to acknowledge Christ’s shed blood and His righteousness as all we had in the face of God’s holy law? That all of our supposed “virtue” – Christian or pagan – is just like so many old menstrual garments (to use the Bible phrase)? But that God imputes to those who trust Christ’s cross the true righteousness of Christ Himself? We are pretty sure that unbelievers who come to believe this are instantly justified in God’s sight, declared as if innocent, adopted as sons or daughters, forgiven of all sin, given eternal life, etc. But are Christians still saved that freely? Or are we not? We are pretty clear that imputed righteousness saves sinners. But can the imputed righteousness of Christ save a Christian? And can it save him or her all by itself? Or no? I think the way we answer this question determines whether we have anything at all to say to the “sad alumni” of Christianity.
We Lutheran pastors haven’t done a great job of getting across the central nature of righteousness by imputation alone. I hope you’ve done a better job at it than we have!
Decades ago, a gigantic survey of our clergy and laity showed that we Lutheran pastors hadn’t even convinced our own members of the sufficiency of Christ’s cross and blood and death for them! (And I mean Lutheran members who might never have sneaked out to attend some evangelical revival, might never have spent 5 minutes watching crazy Trinity Broadcasting Network). Proof: A Study of Generations [results: 75% gave perfect Roman Catholic answers!]
- “When you die, are you sure you will enter heaven? [“I hope so.”]
- “I was president, tithed, sang in the choir, taught Sunday School,” etc.
- Perfect Roman Catholic answers! And this survey was done decades ago!
What the “sad alumni” need to hear (perhaps for the first time) is that Christian failures are going to walk into heaven, be welcomed into heaven, leap into heaven like a calf leaping out of its stall, laughing and laughing, as if it’s all too good to be true.
It isn’t just that we failures will get in. It’s that we will probably get in like that! We failures-in-living-the-Christian-life-as-described-in-the-Bible will probably say something like, “You mean it was that simple?!” “Just Christ’s cross & blood?! Just His righteousness imputed to my account as if mine? You gotta be kidding!” “And all of heaven is ours just because of what was done by Jesus outside of me, on the cross — not because of what Christ did in me” – in my heart, in my Christian living, in my behavior?!” “Well, I’ll be damned!” But, of course, that’s the point isn’t it? As a believer in Jesus as your Substitute, you won’t be damned! No believer in Jesus will be. Not a single one!
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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