“Kill Me, Jesus!” Notes on a Hymn and the Woman who Wrote It

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the younger: Christ blessing the Children, w. Caspar Cruciger in black, next to Elisabeth and second wife Apollonia Günterode in background.


This week’s offering comes from our editor.

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community


“Kill Me, Jesus!” Notes on a Hymn and the Woman who Wrote It
by  Jerome Burce

I met Elisabeth Cruciger last week. I want you to meet her too. I think she merits our high regard as the first woman theologian of the Lutheran movement.

My encounter with Ms. Cruciger was altogether accidental. Late one evening I was listening to one of Bach’s cantatas with an eye on the text as the music unfolded. When we got to the inevitable closing chorale, here’s what I read and heard:

Ertöt uns durch dein Güte / Erweck uns durch dein Gnad. Or, in equally blunt English, “Kill us through your goodness / Wake us through your grace.”

My eyes popped. In seventy years of English-speaking Lutheran experience, I can’t recall anyone anywhere praying a prayer so honest and direct—so true, one might say, to the ways of the God we have and need in Christ Jesus. Until last week, I hadn’t prayed this way myself. From now on I will. The God of the Gospel invites nothing less than a prayer this bold.

I promptly searched—how could I not?—for the prayer’s source. This led me quickly to Ms. Cruciger, whose name is also given as Creutziger, or even Kreutziger. English references like to spell her first name with a “z.” Wikipedia tells us that her maiden name was Elisabeth von Meseritz. She was born in 1500 to an aristocratic family in Eastern Pomerania—these days part of Poland—and was packed off to a cloister while still a child. She was all of seventeen or eighteen when Luther posted his 95 Theses. Not long after, Johann Bugenhagen popped up in her vicinity as an apostle of the Reformation. She caught the bug. At age twenty-two she somehow left her cloister and headed for Wittenberg, where she joined the Bugenhagen household. (The website hymnary.org has an alternative account whereby her whole family skedaddled from Poland and brought her with them.)

Title page of the Loersfeld edition of the Erfurt Enchiridion, 1524

1522 was a heady time to be arriving in Wittenberg. At the beginning of March, Luther had quit his confinement at the Wartburg Castle, thrown off his Junker Georg disguise, and strode openly into town to what one guesses was the astonishment of all. He promptly preached his famous Invocavit sermons (Luther’s Works 51:67-100) as a crucial first step toward reinvigorating the Reformation. The task of reshaping church life to reflect the distinction between Law and Gospel was now underway in earnest.

Two years later this Law-and-Gospel distinction surfaced in what could loosely be called the first Lutheran hymnal. Printed in Wittenberg, it amounted to a twelve-page pamphlet entitled “Some Christian Songs.” It contained all of eight hymns, four by Luther, three by Paul Speratus, and one by a person unnamed. That same year, 1524, a second hymnal appeared from a printshop in Erfurt. Hence (in part) its name: the Erfurt Enchiridion. This one reprinted the eight Wittenberg hymns and added eighteen more, fourteen by Luther, one each by Justus Jonas and Erhard Hegenwald, another by our friend Anonymous, and one by—you guessed it—Elisabeth Cruciger. Such had become her name that very year when she married one of Luther’s star pupils, Casper Cruciger.

In that Erfurt lineup of twenty-six hymns, Cruciger’s is positioned at number ten, sandwiched between two of Luther’s on one side and three more of Luther’s on the other side. This is quite the company to be keeping when you’re a mere twenty-four years old, and a woman, and the setting you’re stuck in is early sixteenth century Germany. As it happens, Cruciger belongs in this company. This is obvious when you read her hymn. Kudos to Luther et al. for spotting her talent and letting it shine. Later Lutherans of an older male persuasion would not have done this, I think. Shame on them. Shame, perhaps, on some of us.

Cruciger’s hymn is entitled “Herr Christ, der einig Gotts Sohn”—”Lord Christ, the only Son of God.” It comprises five stanzas of seven lines each. The prayer that stunned me launches the last of these stanzas. That’s where she flashes her theological and poetic chops at their most brilliant, tugging us into Luther’s new and sudden insight about the twice-created creatures that born-and-baptized Christians happen to be. What’s more, she does this in fewer words than Luther himself was capable of, or so one guesses.

Here is the whole stanza in unsatisfactory English prose:

“Kill us through your goodness; wake us through your grace. Sicken the old creature, that the new one might live well on this earth, our minds, desires, and thoughts fixed wholly on you.”

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Five hundred years have gone by since these lines were penned. Lutherans these days don’t think this deeply, at least not as a rule. Still less do we dare to trust God with the fierce outrageous confidence that Cruciger exhibits. Too many of us—most all of us, perhaps—are still mired in what Gerhard Forde once lampooned as “ladder theology.” God is up. We are down. Between us stands a ladder that we’re to climb to get to God’s level. Even those of us who still recall bits of the Small Catechism we once memorized are prone to this nonsense. We get to the part about the implications of baptism for daily living, how “the old person in us is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance,” and this we take to be our job, Rung Number One on today’s “to do” list. Like that’s going to happen.

Cruciger’s prayer is the only alternative here. We start the day by begging God to push our heads under the water and hold them there for a while even as Christ barks the strong word that brings us shuffling like Lazarus into a semblance of Easter life all over again. God kills, God makes alive, as Hannah once sang. It takes a God that good, that gracious—a God so incessantly active—to pull off the life we get to have and enjoy in Christ Jesus. This life is bound to unfold in us as the day’s hours fly by. Why? Because the only One who is able to make it happen has promised to do just that. He’ll do it for me. He’ll do it for the Jesus-trusting folks I’ll encounter during the day.

Blessed is the person who looks for signs of Easter life bubbling away in the ones that he or she is rubbing shoulders with. Imagine the improvement in church life were all of us busy doing just that and thanking God for the signs of liveliness we spot beneath each other’s tawdry exteriors.

Comes the rub in all this. The old creature gasps on despite its daily drowning. Being as it is, it wants nothing to do with a God whose goodness will kill it. If it’s a pious old creature, then it promptly aligns with others of its ilk to construct a god more to its liking, a deity stripped of genuine goodness and draped instead in a feeble niceness that operates from a comfortable distance. Oddly, it expects less of this god than it does of the doctors it seeks out when it comes down with cancer. This god is forbidden by definition to kill the poison of sin and rebellion that lurks within. (How mean would that be?) Its job at best is to inspire us all to try harder and do better until we somehow heal ourselves.

Such is the feckless religiosity of a dying church. As its exiting children keep saying these days, “Who needs it?”

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More’s the pity, then, that we’re unable in English-speaking churches to give our children a monthly dose of Cruciger in our hymn selections. Not that her hymn is altogether absent in English. A partial translation by Catherine Winkworth, “O Thou of God the Father,” showed up in a hymnal published for Ohio Synod Lutherans in 1880. A second translation, “The Only Son from Heaven,” appeared in one or two Lutheran hymnals of the early 20th century, resurfaced in the Missouri Synod’s Worship Supplement of 1969, and thereafter was included in Lutheran Book of Worship (1978), Lutheran Worship (1982), Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), and Lutheran Service Book (also 2006). Arthur T. Russell, a 19th century Church of England divine, is responsible for this translation. It too is partial, presenting a close approximation of Cruciger’s first three stanzas, omitting the last two, and tacking on a doxology that someone else may have written. Winkworth’s version limited itself to stanzas one, three and four. One can’t help but guess—yes, with an old-creaturely measure of Lutheran snark—that Cruciger’s stanza five was simply too much for weak English stomachs.

Johann_Sebastian_Bach, by Elias Gottlob Haussmann – Public Domain.

Again, more’s the pity. We would all profit these days from a regular dose of “full Cruciger.” How better to handle the question that pops incessantly in our church meetings: “What is God doing?” Answer: “Killing us. Making us alive. That’s what God is up to, day in and day out, whether we want it or not. Alleluia!”

German-speaking Lutherans have it better than we do. Cruciger’s entire hymn continues to appear in hymnbooks they use. And then there’s Bach. He anchored a whole cantata (BWV 96) on the hymn. The chorus launches it with stanza one and wraps it up with stanza five. Bach had already used the fifth stanza to conclude an earlier cantata (BWV 22). That’s where I encountered it. This one is based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ third passion prediction (Lk. 18: 31, 34). It opens with a marvelous rendering of Luke’s text that features the choir sputtering “what? what?” as they deliver the line about the disciples not knowing what Jesus said. (Yes. That’s us.) Comes a reflection on Jesus’ passion and extended prayers for the faith that faces it, embraces it, and allows our crucified Lord to do his work in us. And with that we get to Cruciger. Again, Ertöt uns durch dein Güte / Erweck uns durch dein Gnad / Etc. As the choir sing this in chorale form, its lines are interwoven by an orchestral accompaniment that radiates joy. “God has promised. God will do it!” So preaches Bach through the music he writes.

To crib from later preachers: “Can I hear an ‘Amen’?” God tug this from us all.

Cruciger’s life was brief. She died at age thirty-five. Her daughter would later marry one of Luther’s sons. I’m somehow not surprised. Whether she published anything besides this hymn, I do not know. Perhaps I’ll find out, though it’s enough already now to thank God for the bracing jolt she gave me last week. You’ll do the same, I pray.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community

Some Christmas Leftovers

Giotto di Bondone, Nativity (Arena Chapel) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


He has done it before. He does it again. Our editor passes along some lingering thoughts as a major season of the church year draws to a close. A dollop of Luther comes with it. A bit of Bach too, for that matter.

On this Eleventh Day of Christmas—

Peace and Joy,
The Crossings Community


Some Christmas Leftovers
by Jerome Burce

For the first time in thirty-four years I wasn’t called on to preach a sermon this Christmas. “Thank God he’s retired,” said some people near and dear.

This didn’t keep me from rummaging around in Christmas texts, whether with colleagues via Zoom or in the quiet of my study. The ones I spent time with came from Luke, Luther, and Bach.

Luke’s was the familiar one that gets read in most every church the world over on Christmas Eve. I’ve known it by heart in the King James Version since I was a boy, appearing year after year in those Christmas programs that used to be featured in Missouri Synod elementary schools. They were built around the recitation—mere reading? Are you kidding?—of key Biblical texts, beginning with Genesis 3:15 (“I will put enmity between thee and the woman,” etc.) and ending with Matthew’s account of the Magi come to Bethlehem. These were interspersed with a hefty mix of standard carols that the children sang in three-part harmony. Such were the days.

(Norman Habel, by the way, is the teacher who would later disabuse of me of reading Genesis 3:15 as the Proto-Evangelium—the first hint of Christ to come—that centuries upon centuries of interpretation, Luther’s included, had cracked it up to be.)

When at last it fell to me to move from pre-Christmas recitation into Christmas Eve preaching, I took to digging behind King James’s lovely English to see what Luke first said in New Testament Greek. From this came a heap of “Aha’s” that sermons were built on.

I learned, for example, that what the shepherds felt when the lights went on in the field they were abiding in was a deal worse than being “sore afraid.” I discovered too that the subsequent sounds in the skies overhead were coming from ranks upon ranks of angelic soldiers. “Sweetly singing o’er the plains,” were they? I’m guessing not. Trumpeting their joyous relief is much more like it.

There were a few bits of this Greek that I didn’t make much of over the years. I stubbed my eye on two of them last month. They got me musing on Christmas sermons I might have preached had other ideas not pushed them aside.

Augustus von Prima Porta (Vatican Museums, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s the first of them. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. The Greek behind “decree” is dógma, a word that made a direct jump into English. There it got speedily encrusted with new layers of meaning. In Christian usage we hear it as “doctrine-on-steroids,” as in that which can’t be fiddled with or set aside if you aim to wear the Christian label with any integrity.

As it happens, there is much of this quality in that decree by old Augustus. No fiddling around. No setting aside. That’s why Joseph hauls his pregnant wife to the village of his forebears, he and millions of others in Caesar’s wide world who know a dogma when they hear one. “Do it or else!” “Believe it or else!” Notice how faith is at issue here. There’s no marching off to Bethlehem unless you believe that Caesar means business.

Were this to spark a full-blown Christmas sermon, I think I’d talk about the legions of dogmatic pretenders that infest the wide world we live in now. They come in all manner of guises—political, cultural, economic, religious. Irreligious too. For increasing numbers of Westerners the doctrine of God’s non-existence is the surest dogma of them all. “Buy it or else”—such is the mantra of every would-be Caesar. God for God’s part answers dogma with dogma. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” Die we do, all Caesars included. I’d point this out in that putative sermon.

Comes the wonder of Christmas. “And it came to pass in that night that there went out a new decree from God Almighty.” Or, as the preacher might say, a new dogma is suddenly promulgated, hitherto unheard of, beyond our own imagining. The promulgation happens first and definitively through the angels’ song—those legions of angels who are also there to back it up, though not in the way that Caesar’s legions would. Heaven forfend! The new dogma forbids this.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward [humankind].” That’s the dogma. God has a thing for his human creatures, be they shepherds or Caesars or anyone in-between. He wants and expects them to be at peace with each other as he is with them. He’ll make this happen through that impossible baby in the ridiculous manger where no baby should lie. Later, when this Christ is nailed to a cross where no human being should hang, he’ll absorb all the wrath, contempt, and blatant rebellion that people direct toward God, to say nothing of each other. Come Easter night, the first thing God-in-Christ will do is to iterate the new dogma. “Peace be with you,” says he to a little clutch of scared and foolish human beings who deserve anything but.

“So when crabby Uncle George cuts loose at tomorrow’s Christmas dinner, don’t hold back. Heed the dogma. Declare God’s peace in the peace and good will you strive to keep with him.” It’s along such lines that I’d wrap things up, I think. Then I’d point all eyes to the blessed Sacrament as the place where God is making and keeping his peace with us this very night, and this in spite of our reluctance to take his dogma seriously as a way of life.

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Christians, of course, have always struggled with this new Christmas dogma. Another bit of Luke’s Greek makes me think the struggle was already underway in Mother Mary’s own heart. That, says the King James English, is where “Mary kept all these things [which were told them by the shepherds] and pondered them….”

Luke’s word, rendered as “pondered,” is a participial form of sumbállo—long “o” at the end. At its most basic it means “toss together.” This suggests another English word: “juggle.”

I won’t presume on your patience right now by imagining another sermon built around this word. I’ll only suggest that “juggling” makes more sense me to here than “pondering. It’s less quiet, more jagged. It suggests more dissonance of the kind that you and I struggle with in our own efforts to grasp the shepherds’ message as a trustworthy description of how things are with us, to say nothing of the world, where God is concerned.

Was Mary at peace with babbling shepherds around her baby’s quasi-cradle that first Christmas night? Was she able to thank God for them? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s not hard at all to imagine her wishing that the gang would promptly push off and let her get some sleep.

It’s worth noting here that Mary all but disappears from Luke’s Gospel after the end of Chapter 2. When she does pop up, she does so namelessly, as the mother of Jesus who, with his brothers, would like to see him, only the crowd is in the way. What she gets from her son that day is a cold brush-off, or so it seems. See Luke 8:19-21. It’s only after the Ascension that Luke mentions her again. He names her too. Mary and the rest of her boys are now keeping company with the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). The Christmas penny has finally dropped, post-Easter.

All this suggests that Mary, the first Christian believer—see her response to Gabriel, Luke 1:38—is also the first to struggle with her newfound faith. Here I mean the quite specific faith that God was and is at work in Christ to reconcile the world to himself. That’s how Paul puts it to the Corinthians in the second of his letters to them. They too have been juggling dogmas back and forth, the old and the new. God’s law and God’s gospel, as Lutherans tend to say. On the one hand, you get what you deserve, as does your neighbor. On the other, you get what Christ deserves, and again, so does your neighbor. On the one hand the final word is “same old, same old.” On the other the final word is “new creation,” with you and neighbor alike included in this to God’s boundless delight. To your delight too when at last the shadows have lifted.

One facet of the Gospel—under-told, too little appreciated—is God’s fierce determination to keep his Christmas peace with us no matter how feebly we believe in it or how badly we botch it. I pray that whoever is preaching this year will underscore this again and again with the juggling hearts they’re talking to. Then let them preach Christ in a way that tamps the juggling down and fosters God’s peace. “Come, Holy Spirit, and make it so.”

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Two addenda, both quick:

Johann Sebastian Bach, BMW 248 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I spoke at the start of having looked at texts from Luther and Bach this Christmas. From Luther comes an unusual analogy you might enjoy. It has to do with what

happens—what is bound to happen, in fact—when the internal juggling dies down somewhat, and a person starts trusting the Gospel more strongly than she did. The quote comes, by the way, from Luther’s treatment of the Gospel for Christmas Day, John 1:1-14, in his Church Postil. See Volume 52 of Luther’s Works, page 79. Persons sensitive to pronouns will need to grit their teeth—graciously, God grant. The translation comes from the old unhappy era of pronominal insensitivity, for which all one can do is to echo God’s forgiveness.

“Wherever the will goes, there love and desire follow. The whole man must crawl into the gospel and become new. He must shed his old skin as does the snake. When the snake’s skin becomes old, it looks for a narrow hole in the rock, crawls into it, sheds its skin, and lets it lie outside in front of the hole. In like manner must man enter into the gospel and the word of God, must boldly believe its promise that God does not lie; in doing so he sheds his old skin and leaves lying outside his [own] light, his conceit, his will, his love, his desire, his words, his deeds. Then he becomes completely different, a new being who looks at all things differently from the former way. He judges and considers differently, think, wills, speaks, loves differently, desires, performs and behaves differently.”

God deck all God’s snakes in such new skins as the new year unfolds.

And now from Bach, whose six cantatas of the Christmas Oratorio are rich with prayers for faith in God’s new Christmas dogma of peace on earth, good will toward all. Here are two such prayers from the fourth cantata, transmitted in English that can’t do justice to the German—

“I want to live only to honor you, my Savior. Give me power and courage so that my heart is eager to do this. Strengthen me to exalt your name worthily, and with thanks.”

And again—

“Jesus, order my beginning.
Jesus, stay with me always.
Jesus, control my mind.
Jesus, be my only desire.
Jesus, be in my thoughts.
Jesus, don’t let me waver.”


Amen and Amen.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community

Pressing Reminders from Ed Schroeder (Part 2)

Stained glass: Alfred Handel, d. 1946[2], photo:Toby Hudson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


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.”[15]  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.”[16]

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?”[17]

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.”[18]

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.

Riches of Divine Grace, Martin Luther (from Canva)

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.”[19]

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.

Romans 10:4 (from Canva)

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.”[20] 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.[21]

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.[22]

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.”[23]


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 “[24]

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.”[25]

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.

17 Ibid.

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
A publication of the Crossings Community

Pressing Reminders from Ed Schroeder (Part 1)

Luther, Martin, Author. Ninety-Five Theses. Nuremberg: Hieronymus Höltzel, 1517. Image. https://www.loc.gov/item/2021667736/


Suddenly we find ourselves in the final weeks of the current church year. A new one launches at the end of this month. The texts we hear in church between now and Christmas will crackle with news about the pending end of all things and the new beginning that God has already launched once and for all in Christ Jesus. If only that news would get the hearing it requires.

To that end we’re sending you a piece from our library in the hope that you’ll not only profit from it yourself but share it with others—preachers in particular if you dare. Ed Schroeder wrote it thirty-eight years ago. It appeared in the Spring, 1984 issue of Trinity Seminary Review (Vol. 6, No. 1) and was reprinted on our website with permission. Steve Hitchcock of our editorial team tinkered with it in recent weeks to make it more accessible for readers who aren’t familiar with the Latin catchphrases and theological-insider abbreviations that Ed was fond of using.

Ed’s stated topic is baptism and confession. His underlying target is a glibness about God’s attitude toward self-centered (aka sinful) humankind, more rampant in the church today than it already was when Ed wrote this. His goal—as ever with Ed—is to glorify Christ and comfort people who wonder whether a future with God is something they dare to hope for. God grant relief to you as you read—Part 1 today, Part 2 arriving next week.

A reminder that we gather this coming January to revel together in the promise of Christ. The occasion is our first Crossings Conference since 2020. Our topic is “The Promising Community.” The ELCA’s Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, is one of the speakers we’ll be hearing from. Do join us! So much the better if you register at our website already this week so that we can get ready to welcome you.

Peace and Joy,

The Crossings Community



Baptism and Confession
by Edward H. Schroeder

The Reformation began with a call to reform the practice of repentance in the western church (see Luther’s 95 Theses). The ministry of Jesus and his predecessor John the Baptist started in the same way. John came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” After his arrest, says Mark, “Jesus came preaching… repent and believe the Gospel” (1:14f.).

In both the first and the sixteenth century, these calls to repentance were addressed to a people shaped by what, today, we would call civil religion—with “zeal for God,” as St. Paul puts it, “but not enlightened.” That is already one link between us and the renewal of repentance. The American people practice civil religion—perhaps in both church and state. The call of Christian ministry to reform the practice of repentance is also at hand.

This is especially true in view of the past few years of our national history. Were we to track the daily headlines with Luther’s antennae, we would soon notice that it is a time for repentance.

One of Luther’s most surprising treatments of repentance comes in his 1529 treatise “On War Against the Turk.”[1] The Turkish army, numbering hundreds of thousands, was outside the gates of Vienna. Luther’s antennae detected two enemies approaching the Holy Roman Empire. One was Suleiman the Magnificent. The other was God. Two very different enemies called for two very different defenses.

Since the Turk is the rod of the wrath of the Lord our God… the first thing to be done is to take the rod out of God’s hand, so that the Turk may be found only, in his own strength, all by himself, and without God’s hand…. This fight must be begun with repentance and we must reform our lives, or we shall fight in vain…for God is devising evil against us because of our wickedness and is certainly preparing the Turk against us as he says in Psalm 7, “If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword; he has bent and strung his bow; he has prepared his deadly weapons.”[2]

Bartel Beham’s Engraving of the Siege of Vienna (1529), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Luther anticipates that, in the eyes of experts, his military analysis and strategy “will be laughable for they will consider it a simple and common thing which they have long since passed beyond; nevertheless, I have not been willing to omit it for the sake of myself and of sinners like myself, who need both repentance and exhortation to repentance every day.”[3]

The last line signals what is central. Repentance? Who needs it? Sinners do. They need both repentance and exhortation to repentance every day. To explore what Luther means by this, I shall work from three Luther documents: The Large Catechism sections on Baptism and Confession, the corresponding articles from the Smalcald Articles, and Luther’s Explanations of the 95 Theses.

The Grammar of Confession

The New Testament term for confessing is homologia. It means “saying the same thing.” Thus to confess is to repeat, reiterate, “same-say” what someone else has already said. Fundamentally the stage-set for such same-saying is juridical, the forensic courtroom. In the courtroom, charges, claims, accusations, defenses, testimony, witness, yes, even confessions, are all made. Christian confessing occurs on such a stage-set. Confessing sin and confessing the faith, both of them, are same-saying back to the judge what someone else has first said about us to the court.

First the prosecutor. “Your honor, this one is a sinner according to your own law. Here is prima facie evidence.” Confessing sin is the accused concurring in the prosecutor’s statement, “same-saying” it out loud.

Then comes the defense attorney who, according to Revelation 12, appears before the bench as a Lamb that was slain and says: “Your honor, this accused is one for whom I died. Guilty indeed. But in my death for just such folks, justice, your justice, has already been done. Proleptically, you might say. Thus the accused is a candidate for acquittal.”

Says the judge: “How does the accused now plead?” In answer comes the “confession of faith,” same-saying the defense counselor’s words: “I confess that I am just such a one as the Lamb described. I plead the Lamb’s prior testimony. I trust that I am righteous propter Christum (because of Christ). He said I was.”

Today critical voices question the image of this forensic drama as mythology and suited to another age, not reflecting the sense of reality we have today. For Luther the juridical is not metaphor or image or symbol for something else. It is reality. Our lives must pass muster before the divine bench. Indeed, we are doing that day in and day out long before the final judgment. If you think you are on trial before your human associates day in and day out, then note well that this drama is performed on a human stage, behind which is the real back wall of the theater.

In front of that real wall is the divine bench, the cosmic judge, and your microcosmic drama on this mini-stage is actually being performed on the cosmic stage of the mega-courtroom. Just as there were two enemies confronting the empire at Vienna in Luther’s time, so there are two benches before which we practice and argue our own cases. Survival even in the mini-stage of daily routine life depends on how we make our confessions—both of them, of sin and of faith. That is of course true if and only if we are sinners. But if sinners, then we “need both repentance and the exhortation to repentance every day.”

Behind this bivocal confessionalism in Luther’s theology lies his “Eureka” encounter with the bivocality of God. One way he describes it is in a Table Talk selection from the winter of 1542-43:

For a long time I went astray and didn’t know what I was doing. To be sure, I was on to something, but I did not know what it really was until I came to the text in Rom 1:17, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” That text helped me. There I saw what righteousness Paul was talking about. The word justitia struck out in the text. I connected the abstract notion of righteousness with the concrete phenomenon of being righteous, and finally understood what I had here. I learned to distinguish between the law’s kind of righteousness and that of the gospel. My previous reading was marred by but one defect in that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I regarded them to be identical and spoke as though there was no difference between Christ and Moses other than their location in time and their relative perfection. But when I found that distinction—that the law is one thing, and the gospel is something else–that was my breakthrough.[4]

Confessing sin and confessing faith are same-saying, saying yes to God’s word of law and God’s word of gospel addressed to me.

The Baptismal Basis of Both Confessions

In Luther’s Large Catechism the discussion of confession and absolution comes connected to baptism. Here, as in the Small Catechism, the fourth question about baptism asks about its character as a sign, what it signals for the future. Baptism puts a signpost on the baptized: This human being is signed up/signed in for a future of “sinking under and coming back up again…slaying the old Adam and resurrecting the new, both of which actions must continue in us our whole life long. Thus a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, once begun and ever continued…. This is the right use of Baptism.” Where this does not happen, “Baptism is not being used but resisted.”

Luther continues—

Here you see that Baptism, both by its power and by its signification [= pointer toward a particular future], comprehends also the third sacrament, formerly called Penance, which is really nothing else than Baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old man and an entering upon a new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in Baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and promotes it. … Therefore Baptism remains forever. … Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.

I say this to correct the opinion, which has long prevailed among us, that our Baptism is something past which we can no longer use after falling again into sin. We have such a notion because we regard Baptism only in the light of a work performed once for all. Indeed, St. Jerome is responsible for this view, for he wrote, “Repentance is the second plank on which we must swim ashore after the ship founders” in which we embarked when we entered the Christian church.  This interpretation deprives Baptism of its value, making it of no further use to us. Therefore the statement is incorrect. The ship does not founder since, as we said, it is God s ordinance and not a work of ours. But it does happen that we slip and fall out of the ship. If anybody does fall out, he should immediately head for the ship and cling to it until he can climb aboard again and sail on as he had done before.[5]

The strangeness with which protestantized Lutherans in America generally greet the restoration of confession and absolution as regular parish ministry is undoubtedly linked to a strange notion of what baptism is. Now baptism is strange, but the strange notion of Christians today about it is an estranged notion, estranged from the daily double dipping that baptism signals right at the outset.

At the very end of the Large Catechism, Luther appended to the article on the Lord’s Supper another few paragraphs about confession. The last of those paragraphs begins: “Therefore when I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian. If I bring you to the point of being a Christian, I have also brought you to confession…. [By definition] Christians…want to be free from their sins, and happy in their conscience.”[6] Confession is all there in baptism, because what it means to be Christian is all there in baptism. The whole Christian ball of wax is about death and resurrection, Christ’s first, then ours. Renewal in baptismal piety is recovering the third sacrament.

Luther’s Proposal for Reforming the Confessional Sacrament

Confession (from Canva)

The hassle over indulgences was the tripwire that put the Wittenberg reformation onto the European map. Indulgences did not put forgiveness of sins up for sale. Indulgences were an alternate route—one might even say a pastorally better way, a grace-oriented way—of practicing the final and painful part of the penance sacrament as it had evolved in the medieval church. Here is Luther’s description of the sequence: It was “divided into three parts–contrition, confession, and satisfaction–with the added consolation that a person who properly repents, confesses, and makes satisfaction has merited forgiveness and has paid for his sins before God.”[7]

Indulgences came in at part three as an alternate form for making satisfaction. Indulgences were another route for balancing out the accounts that my sinful actions had messed up. Normal satisfactions were spelled out in the form of penalties: You hurt someone, so you should be hurt in return with some corresponding punishment. The pastoral task in designating satisfaction/punishments called for skill in “making the punishment fit the crime.” Indulgences were monetary penalties substituted for performance penalties: reasonable and performable.

Luther’s pastoral objection was not that money cannot buy forgiveness. That was true, but he saw the entire third sacrament in all its parts marred by something else. It was promoted under the rubric that the penitent “merits forgiveness and pays for his sins before God.” And what is so bad about that is Christological. In the Smalcald Articles, Luther walks through the traditional pastoral practice of each segment (contrition, confession, satisfaction) and comes up with the almost same conclusion over and over: “There was no mention here of Christ or of faith.”[8]

In his commentary to the famous Thesis 62 of the 95, Luther observed: “The Gospel…is not very well known to a large part of the church.”[9] In the Smalcald Articles, Luther links that to another theological vacuum in the church’s pastoral leadership: “It was impossible for them to teach correctly about repentance because they did not know what sin really is.”[10] Neither of God’s two words—Gospel or sin—is well known. No wonder confession needs reform. “Ignorance concerning sin and concerning Christ” are inseparable twins. This double ignorance, he complains, is at the bottom of the “thoroughly pagan doctrines” that call for reform.[11]

In 1973 the psychiatrist Karl Menninger cheered the hearts of many religious folks with his book entitled, Whatever Became of Sin?. It was a welcome new breeze in the wishy-washy psycho-sociological, analytical jungle that tended to track bad behavior back to cause-and-effect roots over which the perpetrators of wickedness had little or no control, and therefore could not rightly be held accountable. For a culture sliding toward structural non-accountability, Menninger’s was a protest with biblical groundings. But it was not about sin. It was at best about sins, about destructive behaviors for which human society should rightly hold the culprits accountable. Luther’s critique of scholastic theology on sin would implicate Menninger, too, as well as the moralistic/atomistic notion of sin at the center of American civil religion.

Sin is not something sinners do. It is something sinners are. Their doing is a consequence of their being. To borrow the formula from the Augsburg Confession, sinners “…are without fear of God, are without trust in God, and are concupiscent.”[12] They are non-listeners to, and consequently not same- sayers of, God’s word of critical analysis.

To be without fear of God is to refuse to confess God’s word of law as true about oneself. In addition, sinners are non-listeners—and consequently non-same-sayers—of God’s word of Christic gospel (non-confessors of trusting the promise); and in place of these two mega- missing factors, they are concupiscent, that is, the directional antenna of their lives is tuned in to some other signal, a signal that has them signed up and signed on for a very different future than the one God’s gospel has in mind for them.

Much sixteenth-century scholastic theology got no further than listing the fruits of sin. It did not probe for (or even become aware of) the root sin. Fruits, of course, are quite accessible; roots, not so easily. And so it is with sin. Root sin “is so deep a corruption of our being that reflective reason cannot understand it. It must be believed because of the revelation in the Scriptures.”[13]

Note well, people do not come to confess sin by self-analysis, however carefully done.

Confessing sin (“believing” that I am a sinner) comes from listening to God’s external word and responding by same-saying it. And which word of God is that? It is the word that non-God-fearers refuse to same-say: God’s word of critical exposure, God’s law.

The chief function or power of the law is to make original sin manifest and show humankind to what utter depths human nature has fallen and how corrupt it has become. So the law must tell us that we neither have nor care for God or that we worship strange gods–something we would not have believed before without the law’s exposing us.[14]

Sin as Incurvatus in Se–curved in one oneself

The directional signal of a sinner’s life is an arrow that is incurvatus in se (turned inward on oneself). I come to know that, says Luther, only by being told from the outside.

In Road to Reformation, a biography of Luther, Heinrich Boehmer contrasts the two views of sin in the Reformation controversy as longe a deo esse [to be distant from God] versus contra deum esse [to be against God]. It is not the case, says Luther, that our hearts are just separated by some distance from God and we need to be brought together again. Rather our hearts are moving in a contrary direction; the space between expands. Augustine is only half right: “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee.” Our hearts are indeed restless because they are busily at work aiming at “rest” in everything but thee.

…to be continued



1 Luther’s Works (54 vols.; St. Louis: Concordia; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1955-76) 46. 155-205; hereafter cited as LW.
2 LW 46, 170-171.
3 Ibid., 172.
4 Author’s translation of Weimar Ausgabe, Tischreden V 210: 5518; also in LW 54, 442-43.
5 The Book of Concord: The Confession of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959) 445-46, with author’s emended translation. Hereafter cited as BC.
6 BC, p. 460.
7 BC, p. 305.
8 Ibid; see also p. 306
9 LW 31, 230.
10 BC, p. 304.
11 BC, p. 303.
12 BC, p. 29.
13 BC, p. 302.
14 BC, p. 303.


Thursday Theology: that the benefits of Christ be put to use
A publication of the Crossings Community