Luther’s Ministry to His Mother

Luther is known as a bold reformer. What is often missed is his pastoral heart and compassionate approach to people. In this post, there are two letters that open a window into his love and care for his mother on her death bed.

“My dearly beloved Mother! I have received my brother James’s letter concerning your illness. Of course this grieves me deeply, especially because I cannot be with you in person, as I certainly would like to be. All your children and my Katie pray for you; some weep.”

“Dear Mother, you also know the true center and foundation of your salvation from whom you are to seek comfort in this and all troubles, namely, Jesus Christ, the cornerstone. He will not waver or fail us, nor allow us to sink or perish, for he is the Savior and is called the Savior of all poor sinners, and of all who are caught in tribulation and death, and rely on him, and call on his name. The Father and God of all consolation grant you, through his holy Word and Spirit, a steadfast, joyful, and grateful faith blessedly to overcome this and all other trouble.”

 

Advertisements

Triune Compassion

From one angle, the storyline of Scripture is a story of grief. We are born into grief, grief is not something we only enter into when a loved one dies, it is what we enter into at birth. Grief is always linked to loss—consider then the magnitude of humanity’s loss. We are born east of Eden, separated from God, alienated from others, enslaved to our sin, and heading to hell.

After the fall we know vertical and horizontal, internal and external fragmentation. We have lost so much. We may not be able to articulate the heaviness of living in a cursed world, but we feel it. WE ARE GRIEVING.

Pain is humanity’s common ground—it is the air we breathe. Sorrow is the norm, loss the expectation, suffering the status quo. All creation groans, it quakes, it grieves under the weight of sorrow and the pain of sin. The ache for redemption is almost audible.

The sorrow of this world runs deep. It is like the depths of the ocean…when you press down into it, it is a vast, rugged world all its own. A sorrow, that without Christ would know no end—an eternal grief, an everlasting loss, an existence without hope and without comfort for all eternity.

Into this heavy darkness enters the God of all compassion. When Paul considers the compassion of God he breaks forth into praise. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the compassionate father and God of all comfort!” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Blessed be the Triune God who does not leave us languishing in sorrow, but engages this world of pain with fierce compassion and mighty gentleness.

God engages us with compassion and comfort that reaches the very the depths of the sorrow this world knows—He gets up underneath it, shoulders it and provides the redeeming comfort humanity needs. The Triune God of the universe is compassionate: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The Compassionate Heart of the Father

When the Father opens his mouth to speak of his heart, what comes out? “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth, who keeps lovingkindness for thousands forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7). Compassion is the first word that comes out of his mouth.

The Old Testament is filled with references to the compassionate and comforting presence of God to his hurting people. “Comfort, Comfort my people says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1)—this is the consistent and steady message of God “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13).

The classic story of the Prodigal Son is a window into the heart of the Father. The story mentions says that when the son was far off the father saw him and “had compassion on him” (Luke 15:20). He rose to his feet, ran to him and embraced him. This was unheard of for a father in the first century context. Compassion compelled the Father to run to the hurting and lost.

 The Compassionate Wounds of the Son

Compassion comes walking in the incarnation. In Jesus, we see what compassion looks like, tastes like, smells like, and sounds like. B.B. Warfield wrote a book titled, The Emotional Life of our Lord. In it, he explores all the emotions we witness in the life of Jesus. He makes an important point, the emotion most often expressed by Jesus was compassion. The word used to describe “compassion” speaks literally of a sensation in the guts. To engage with compassion is to engage a suffering world from the gut.

Jesus was moved by compassion when he encountered these various situations.

  • A man with leprosy (Mk 1:41)
  • The death of a widow’s son (Lk 7:13)
  • Two blind men (Matt 20:34)
  • Hungry crowds (Matt 15:32, Mk 8:2)
  • A demon possessed boy (Mk 9:22)
  • Harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd (Mk 6:34)

This examples show that Jesus was moved by compassion when encountering bodily ailments, individuals who were outcasts, death and loss, individuals assaulted by satan and his cohorts, physical needs, and spiritual lostness.

In Jesus, we see compassion. It looks like a tear stained face that aches over death. It tastes like fire-seared fish in the mouth of men who had disowned him days earlier. It smells like broken bread and poured out wine. It sounds like a Roman hammer pounding nails into flesh and a rock rolling away from a rich man’s tomb.

Jesus shows us compassion. He shows us that compassion…

  • is a posture that refuses to back down from pain
  • does not hide from suffering
  • runs head long into the sorrow of others
  • does not deny, minimize, or numb pain—it shoulders it
  • is not a mere emotion, it is a posture, a way of being in the world
  • is love when it meets pain

Compassion is rebellion. It refuses to lay down to pain. It wades right into the heart of suffering and wages war. It seeks to absorb and shoulder the pain of another. It inserts kindness, love and patience into the darkest of places.

This truth about Jesus has been deeply life-giving…and to be honest has kept my faith intact on many occasions. This world desperately needs a compassionate God—a God with a tear stained face, a man of Sorrows, a God with dirty feet, and bloody hands. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right, “Only a Suffering God Can Help,” and He has!

The Compassionate Presence of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Great Comforter—compassion is integral to his character and activity. He comes to bring the comfort of Christ. It is his role to communicate the compassion of God through Christ to us.

He is deeply compassionate as he enters into our sufferings with the comfort of God, shares our pain and journeys with us through every hardship we face. If we have trusted Christ, we have never walked through anything without him. Since he took up residence within us, he has known our every grief. The pain beyond words, that hurt outside the scope of speech, He knows, He understands, He groans over, and He communicates about it to the Father for you. Where would we be without Him!

The Triune God engages in our sorrow, he brings us comfort through his gospel. He does not take away our pain…he walks with us in it, serves us, loves us and enables us to persevere through it. This is the movement of the Triune God toward the world—a costly compassion that brings comfort to a ruptured world. Blessed be this great God!

Sin is like Addiction

Gerhard Forde wrote a challenging piece on sin and addiction in his book, On Being a Theologian of the Cross. The entire section below is from the book.

“As sinners we are like addicts – addicted to ourselves and our own projects. The theology of glory simply seeks to give those projects eternal legitimacy. The remedy for the theology of glory, therefore, cannot be encouragement and positive thinking, but rather the end of the addictive desire. Luther says it directly: “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.” So we are back to the cross, the radical intervention, end of the life of the old and the beginning of the new.

Since the theology of glory is like addiction and not abstract doctrine, it is a temptation over which we have no control in and of ourselves, and from which we must be saved. As with the addict, mere exhortation and optimistic encouragement will do no good. It may be intended to build up character and self-esteem, but when the addict realizes the impossibility of quitting, self-esteem degenerates all the more. The alcoholic will only take to drinking in secret, trying to put on the facade of sobriety. As theologians of glory we do much the same. We put on a facade of religious propriety and piety and try to hide or explain away or coddle our sins….

As with the addict there has to be an intervention, an act from without. In treatment of alcoholics some would speak of the necessity of ‘bottoming out,’ reaching the absolute bottom where one can no longer escape the need for help. Then it is finally evident that the desire can never be satisfied, but must be extinguished. In matters of faith, the preaching of the cross is analogous to that intervention. It is an act of God, entirely from without. It does not come to feed the religious desires of the Old Adam and Eve but to extinguish them. They are crucified with Christ to be made new.”

― Gerhard O. FordeOn Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518

The Church is a Community of the Cross

John Stott wrote a well known book on The Cross of Christ, in it he speaks about the cross as the shape and focus of the church. The strands he pulls from in the quote below are helpful for centering our understanding of the body of believers on the cross.

“The Christian community is a community of the cross, for it has been brought into being by the cross, and the focus of its worship is the Lamb once slain, now glorified. So the community of the cross is a community of celebration, a eucharistic community, ceaselessly offering to God through Christ the sacrifice of our praise and thanksgiving. The Christian life is an unending festival. And the festival we keep, now that our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us, is a joyful celebration of his sacrifice, together with a spiritual feasting upon it.”

 

The Mechanics of Hope

Hope. Equal to faith, second only to love (1 Cor 13:13). This interior dimension to our existence is crucial. I have underestimated its importance in my experience, the lives of others and my theology. To put it another way, hopelessness is alive and well. I know its insidious power in my own soul and I see it in those around me. Hope is a need. It’s on the same footing as faith. Just as I need faith, I need hope. You do too.

There are many entry points to a discussion on hope from Scripture, I have chosen one verse that opens a window into its source and even its mechanics. The text is Romans 15:13. In the context Paul is urging both Jew and Gentile to welcome one another based upon the hospitality of God in Christ…the good news of a Savior for all, without distinction. In that flow comes this prayer for all Roman believers.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

There are a number of observations that can be made from this passage on hope…all very important for both our thinking and experience. We need hope. We know hopelessness. This is God’s word to us on the source of our hope and the means of experiencing it.

  • The God of hope is the source of all hope. The Trinity is by nature hope-giving. This is critical to any and all discussions on hope—it all ultimately flows from God himself. We would do well to think through how each person of the Trinity is committed and passionate in providing us hope.
  • Joy and peace are connected to hope as the experience that flows from the God of hope. The text makes this link clear, where there is hope there is also joy and peace.
  • Believing is the mechanism that connects us to hope. In the context, it is a believing of the gospel of hope found in Scripture that ultimately links us to the God of hope.
  • The Holy Spirit is explicitly identified as the power of hope, the one who brings the experience of hope within. He is the one who connects us to our objective hope without, that is Christ himself and the gospel we believe.
  • Abounding in hope is the result of the text, it is the aim of the God of hope for us as we believe the gospel of hope which is worked into us by the Spirit of hope.

The Divine Definition of Excellence

Andreas Kostenberger wrote a book on Excellence in scholarship. He argues that a theology of God’s excellence is the foundation of any practical theology of excellence. His thoughts are very helpful and challenging. I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on what he suggests here. A link to the first chapter of the book is included below.

God is the grounds of all true excellence. He is the one who fills any definition of excellence with meaning, and he is the reason why we cannot be content with lackluster mediocrity, halfhearted effort, or substandard scholarship. Excellence starts and ends with God and is first and foremost a hallmark and attribute of God. Without God as our starting point and continual frame of reference, our discussion of excellence would be hopelessly inadequate.

Systematic theologies generally do not list “excellence” as one of God’s attributes. For this reason it may appear at first glance that excellence is not all that important. This conclusion would be premature, however, for excellence can be viewed as an overarching divine attribute that encompasses all the others. Everything God is and does is marked by excellence. Wayne Grudem discusses God’s summary attributes of perfection, blessedness, beauty, and glory as “attributes that summarize his excellence.”

Perfection indicates that “God lacks nothing in his excellence.” Blessedness points to the fact that “God takes pleasure in everything in creation that mirrors his own excellence.” Beauty is a reflection of God’s excellence, and “God’s glory is something that belongs to him alone and is the appropriate outward expression of his own excellence.”6 Understanding excellence as an all-encompassing attribute of God also means that the concept is not exhausted by the word “excellence.” Other descriptions of the uniqueness, greatness, glory, or perfection of God are pertinent as well.

As we have seen, God truly excels in the sense that he stands out from all the rest. His excellence is evident in his unmatched superiority to everyone and everything else. Because God is the proper standard of excellence, we should not measure our achievements by comparing ourselves with others. Our pursuit of excellence should not take place in the kind of competitive spirit according to which only few can participate and where in the end there is only one winner. Since we are all created in God’s image, everyone can be truly excellent. God is unique, and we are made uniquely in his image as distinct creatures. We can each achieve excellence as we are increasingly fulfilling the potential God has built into us.

Since excellence, then, is an all-encompassing attribute of God, and since we are exhorted in Scripture to imitate God, having been made in his likeness, excellence should mark our lives as his children, extending both to who we are (our character and our relationships) and what we do (our work or vocation). Excellence should characterize every thought we have, every paper we write, every relationship we pursue, every assignment we undertake, and every word we speak (see, e.g., Matt. 12:36–37; Eph. 4:29; James 3:1–12). Excellence should describe our lives in their totality and encompass every area of our lives, no matter how large or small.

http://static.crossway.org/excerpt/excellence/excellence-download.pdf

 

Why Weakness Should Drive us Godward

Weakness, moral and otherwise has a way of pushing us away from God. It certainly does not serve as a confidence builder when approaching the holy God of the universe.

Hebrews introduces us to a different perspective, an incarnational logic. Take a look at Hebrews 4:14-16.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

The call in this passage is to “hold fast our confession” and to “draw near” to God with confidence that we might know the help of grace when in need. Note what grounds  the call, what forms the foundation of this confidence.

Incredibly, it’s how God engages our weakness. The “for” and “then” of the text drive us to the central confidence giver in the face of weakness—a sympathetic Savior.

We do not have a mediator who lacks understanding, a stand-between ignorant of suffering, a high priest incapable of meeting weakness with grace. He is sympathetic (συμπαθῆσαι). This is a description of the God-man. This is the fruit of  the incarnation and cross—understanding and sympathy.

The NIGTC commentary on Hebrews states that “Christ’s earthly life gives him inner understanding of human experience, and thus makes him ready and able to give active help.”

The very thing that drives us away from God should push us toward him. Our weakness is always met by a gracious, understanding Savior who desires to provide help. He does not engage our weakness with condemnation, but kindness.

Through Christ even our weaknesses are transformed into an invitation to know his grace and mercy. They are the occasion for experiencing God’s help.