We are pleased this week to send you the second half of Ed Schroeder’s 1984 essay on Baptism and Confession. See here for Part 1.
As the essay continues, Ed touches on any number of theological issues that the church continues to grapple with forty years later. Don’t miss the challenge he lays down in his final paragraph. It’s one that Crossings will continue to grapple with as an essential part of its mission in the 2020s.
Again: a reminder about the meaty conference that awaits in January. “The Promising Community.” We hope to see you there!
Also again: we ask your ongoing prayers for our friend and brother in Christ, Steve Kuhl, as he continues to wrestle with some grave medical issues. God grant relief!
Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community
Baptism and Repentance (Part 2)
by Edward H. Schroeder
False Gospel: Christ is Not Necessary
The misperception of sin, as a matter of fruits with no attention to the root—or worse still with the root viewed as intact—leads to the false gospel that we should “produce better fruits.” In scholastic theology, the combination of God’s ever-present sacramental grace plus the positive potential ascribed to the human root produces a sinner’s salvation. Christ and faith play no necessary role even though Christ may be mentioned at every turn. But the necessity of his involvement is reduced, and in the worst cases reduced to the point where “he died in vain.”
Such a partial view of sin leads to “partial and fragmentary” repentance in the third sacrament. And that always leaves the penitent uncertain. Were there some sinful fruits that didn’t get mentioned and thus are not yet forgiven? Luther frequently gives the pastoral advice: When confessing do not enumerate your sins lest you get conned into doing fruit-analysis instead of root-dialysis. “You dare not come [to confession],” he says, “and say how good or how wicked you are.” Sin is not quantifiable. Shouldn’t the pastor at least inquire how serious is the penitent’s contrition? “Not necessary,” says Luther. “Take care, therefore, that you do not in any manner trust in your own contrition but completely and alone in that most naked word of your best and most faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
First of all, Luther faults the pastoral practice of his day for urging people to trust their own contrition and not Christ’s word of absolution, and secondly because they are so quick to dole out absolutions and to grant participations in the blessings of the church, as though everybody everywhere has that faith. They make no inquiry of this in the people they absolve. Therefore it is not as necessary to ask when a person is absolved, “Are you sorry?” as it is to ask, “Do you believe that you can be absolved by me?”
Luther sees sacramental confession as the act of confessing original sin, root sin, the sin that shapes my person. Root repentance does not debate what is sin and what is not sin, but lumps everything together and says,
We are wholly and altogether sinful. We need not spend our time weighing, distinguishing, differentiating. On this account there is no uncertainty in such repentance, for nothing is left that we might imagine to be good enough to pay for our sin….And so our repentance cannot be false, uncertain, or partial, for a person who confesses that he is altogether sinful embraces all sins in his confession without omitting or forgetting a single one. Nor can our satisfaction be uncertain, for it consists not of the dubious, sinful works which we do but of the sufferings and blood of the innocent Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Christ and Faith
Clearing up misperceptions of sin leads to a clearer grasp of Christ and faith. Sinners are forgiven, but only for Christ’s sake by faith. “Christ and faith” are corollaries. Christ is God’s good word to sinners and faith is the sinner same-saying that word back to God.
Luther’s drum-beat for the necessity of Christ’s being de facto present for a sinner to trust was asserted against the widespread notion—also today—that God was by nature gracious. Grace was a generic commodity. Popular piety and much serious theology said, “Of course, God is gracious. That’s his job.” Not so, said Luther. The Son of God on the cross signals that the grace sinners need is anything but some “of course” commodity. Nor is grace everywhere available.
Now, of course, all the gifts God showers upon us in creation are free allotments. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, “…all this purely out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.” They do indeed come by grace alone. But you remember how the catechism paragraph of the first article concludes. All that free grace bestowed in God’s first article of creation forgives nobody. In fact, it works just the opposite. “For all of which it is my duty (schuldig bin) to thank and to praise, to serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”
God’s grace in creation is a grace that obligates, implicates, incriminates, and finally litigates against us. Those free gifts work as lex semper accusat (the law always accuses) because they are so good and so freely bestowed. The grace in Christ, the grace that liberates sinners, liberates them from the very schuldig dilemma that arises for sinners in generic grace. We could recur here to that Table Talk cited earlier: God’s grace in the old creation is one thing, God’s grace in Christ is something else.
The Promise of Participatory Exchange
The ignorance about Christ and faith that accompanies theologies of generic grace ignores both the reality of original sin and the biblical declaration that God’s generic response to sinners is deadly. Isaiah’s inaugural vision (chapter 6) vividly depicts the lethal consequences of sinners’ generic encounter with God. And that lethal encounter does not arise from God’s harshness or crankiness, but from God’s justice.
If you want to escape God’s legal (= just) criticism, you need to become a non-sinner. Then you are home free because the law cannot accuse a non-sinner. The sacrament of penance proposes to do just that: to produce a non-sinner. But as we have seen in tracking Luther’s own tracking of its practice in his day, Christ and faith were rendered unnecessary. Thus, in his judgment sinners never were un-sinned by that Christless penance. How then do Christ and faith produce the desired product, an un-sinned sinner who is accusation-proof?
One answer Luther gives in Explanation of the 95 Theses is “Theology of the Cross.” He borrowed the phrase from 1 Corinthians along with its antithesis, “Theology of Glory.” At the cross, God’s Son (= God in person) engages in participatory exchange with sinful humankind. In order to un-sin sinners, God’s Christ loads their sin onto his own shoulders and takes the consequences that that entails: the wages of sin is death. But would that not leave the law of sin and death in charge after this alternate victim is dead? Not so. Why?
The victim whom the law of sin and death killed was not only a sinner-for-us-all, but also the divine majesty. And so closely were the two natures interwoven in that one person, so intimate was that incarnation, so inextricable that assumption of sinners’ humanity, that the rightful executioners of sinners could not take mortal action against this Incriminated One without simultaneously criticizing and executing the divine majesty incarnate there. The upshot was that the otherwise justified executioners of sinners executed their own Lord as well. And to do that is to incriminate themselves as first-commandment breakers.
For any Christ-connected sinner, therefore, the law that criticizes sinners is abrogated. In criticizing Christ to death, the law signed its own death warrant. There is now therefore no condemnation for sinners who are in Christ Jesus. Christ is the one place in the world where sinners are immune to lex semper accusat. Thus, when sinners take refuge on Christ’s turf, they qualify as non-sinners.
But isn’t that all make-believe? Sinners being non-sinners? Isn’t that just a simple contradiction? If it were only a pretend charade, true. But enter promise and faith.
In the Explanation of the 95 Theses, Luther centers on the word promise as the key to the real transfer of Christ’s merits to sinners. It is not fictitious, a merely heavenly bookkeeping transfer. Luther exegetes Matthew 16:19 (“Whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”) and John 20:23 (“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”) as Christ’s promising to give his conquest of the law’s criticism to any sinner who receives the sacramental absolution. The promise is in the second clause: They shall be loosed. They are forgiven.
But the promise needs to be heard by the penitent, so Luther formulates Thesis 7 in this way: “God remits guilt to no one unless at the same time he humbles him in all things and makes him submissive to his vicar, the priest.” The participatory exchange (our sins onto Christ and Christ’s righteousness imparted to us) comes when we are not listening to our uncertain anguished conscience, but to
the judgment of another [human being], not at all on account of the prelate himself or his power, but on account of the word of Christ who cannot lie when he says:“Whatever you loose on earth.” For faith born of this word will bring peace of conscience, for it is according to this word that the priest shall loose. Whoever seeks peace in another way, for example, inwardly through experience certainly seems to tempt God and desires to have peace in fact, rather than in faith. For you will have peace only as long as you believe in the word of that one who promised, “Whatever you loose, etc.” Christ is our peace, but only through faith.
So how does faith figure in? Why “only through faith?” Faith trusts the promise. Trusting the promise makes the promised item my possession. Christum habere (having Christ) is Luther’s fuller definition for faith. To Thesis 37 he says:
It is impossible for one to be a Christian unless he possesses Christ. If he possess Christ, he possesses at the same time all the benefits of Christ….
Righteousness, strength, patience, humility, even all the merits of Christ are his through the unity of the Spirit by faith in him. All his sins are no longer his; but through that same unity with Christ everything is swallowed up in him. And this is the confidence that Christians have and our real joy of conscience that by means of faith our sins become no longer ours but Christ’s. . .(and) all the righteousness of Christ becomes ours.
Indeed, this most pleasant participation in the benefits of Christ and joyful change of life do not take place except by faith.
Faith is the mechanism for the transfer: my sin to Christ, Christ’s righteousness to me. Luther imagines a confessional case where the priest mucked things up badly and the parishioner too was not sufficiently penitent or else did not think that he was, and yet believed with absolute confidence that he was absolved by the one who does the pardoning. “That man’s very faith causes him to be truly pardoned, for he believes in him who said: ’Whatsoever, etc.’ (Matthew 16:19). Why is that so? “Faith in Christ always justifies….You receive as much as you believe.”
Luther’s reform of sacramental penance was a reform in pastoral care; better said, a reform in pastoral kerygma or proclamation. The teaching accompanying the sacrament—teaching about sin, Christ, and faith—makes all the difference.
Sin is not acts of human cussedness. Luther would smile, but disagree, at the whimsical word one hears among Christians today: “Original sin is the one Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable.” Not so.
My sinfulness is not empirically verifiable. It comes by same-saying what God’s Word of law says about and to me. Note well, this is not “total depravity” (= everything I am is no good). Luther’s word is Verderbung, being ruined. My creaturely gifts are just that, fantastic gifts. What is total and sinful about them is that the person graced by them is living a life-line in the wrong direction, a ruinous direction: without fear of God, without trust in God, and with concupiscence. As the Augsburg Confession says: “this is what sin really is; and even now it damns and brings eternal death on those not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit “
Christ is the only adequate resource for coping with sin. The theology of the cross articulates the good news by highlighting “the merits of Christ” as the effective resource to un-sin sinners. For his own day Luther said: “Ever since the scholastic theology…began, the theology of the cross has been abrogated, and everything has been completely turned upside-down. A theology of glory calls evil good, and good evil. Theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.”
Faith is not believing things to be true to which normally you would say “’tain’t so.” Faith is fiducia (trusting), yes, but it is true or false fiducia depending on the object that is being trusted. In the reform of penance, Luther sought to move people away from trusting contrition to trusting Christ or, more precisely, Christ’s promise. And the benefit that comes from trusting Christ’s promise is that Christ’s benefits become the sinner’s possessions in the process. A favored axiom for Luther was: “Believe and you have; believe not and you have not.” Faith is the transfer mechanism for this happy change.
How to apply these insights—how to move from this heritage to minister to our own American context—is not at all clear to me, and it is surely not an easy task. But it is a gift from Luther to us—one for us to unwrap and share “for sinners like ourselves who need both repentance and exhortation to repentance every day.”
BC = The Book of Concord. The primary page references here are to the 1959 translation edited by Theodore G. Tappert. This was the definitive English edition when the present paper was first published. Corresponding references to the now standard Kolb/Wengert edition of 2000 appear in square brackets. Thursday Theology apologizes for not providing these in the first part of the paper that was published last week.
LW = Luther’s Works (St. Louis edition)
15 BC, p. 459. [K/W 478]
16 LW 31, 195, author’s emended translation.
18 BC, p. 309. [KW 318]
19 BC, p. 345, emended by author. [K/W 355]
20 LW, 31, 98.
21 LW 31, 100
22 LW 31, 189-91; italics added.
23 LW 31, 193.
24 BC, p. 29. [K/W 39]
25 LW 31, 255 and 53.
Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
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