This piece is dedicated to those wonderful persons I met in Campus Crusade for Christ, many of whom, while not teaching Christ’s imputational grace and denying the presence of His deified flesh and blood in the bread and wine, nevertheless seemed to me to be compelled by His love. You woke me up to so many things I had missed.
“You showed Your mercy before I could perceive it. You came to me with Your Kindness before I could long for it. Your generosity encompassed me before I could offer thanks for it. You not only marvelously formed me in my mother’s womb, but also drew me out from the womb. You have been my hope since I was at my mother’s breast. I was cast on you from birth. From my mother’s womb you have been my God.” — Johann Gerhard, “Thanksgiving for Life and Birth,” Meditations on Divine Mercy
Does God have a concrete plan for your life? Yes He does, from cradle (thank you Johann, for that tender picture) to the grave, and Lutherans, in particular, should be talking about it more. That plan, primarily, is that you would believe in the wonderful and infinitely precious Gospel of Jesus Christ and run in the way of His commandments, always growing in love toward God and neighbor.
I try to blog about things that other people are not talking about – or about things where I think I have something important to say. The following topic is one of these areas. I think many Christians will answer “yes” to this question, but do so with a more deterministic view of God and His will. I, on the other hand, think that it is always important for Christians to emphasize the very real human freedom that we have in Christ – the free will of our “new man”. Especially more so these days.
Here is a quote from a colleague in the library world who has his ear to the ground. He predicts increasing concern regarding the area of free will in political life:
“There was a great talk by a German journalist (http://edge.org/conversation/the-age-of-the-informavore) and in one part he said that the question of free will is becoming a political question. On the web, with all of the algorithms and various types of surveillance etc. etc., can it be said that we have free will? Although we may think we do, there are myriads of things going on behind the scenes. I compare it to playing poker with somebody like John Scarne, the great card expert, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1cfWDAYLiM (this is from the movie “The Sting”). We could play poker with John Scarne and think we were doing what we wanted, but as this short video shows, he was completely in control, getting everybody to do what *he* wanted, and could take every penny from us. While we think we are exercising our free will, he is handling us like puppets.
Increasingly so these days, with all of us living click to click on the internet, we are all being manipulated in more and more subtle ways. People exercise control over us in ways that we are oblivious to, trying to get us to do what they want us to do, for their purposes. But their power is ultimately only temporal. God uses us for His purposes to, but His purposes are ultimately rooted in a genuine love for all of His children and His desire for their salvation.
So let’s dive into His plan, speaking more broadly in part I and more personally in part II.
First, what is the Gospel? It is the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ given for us (see I Cor. 15) – for our forgiveness, life and salvation from sin, death and the devil. And it is OK to put a period here. Sometimes, we need to just rest in this message, which brings and gives us peace with God by grace though faith. God does desire us to be useful to Him, but of course He also delights simply to be present for and with His people, like a mother singing over the infant in her arms (see Zephaniah 3:17) or a husband with his wife (see Ezekiel 16). On the other hand, this Gospel in the narrow sense propels us to forward as well, into the “What next?” We do not say something like, “now that there is not anything that you have to do, what will you do”? (see this post), but rather say: “now that you are wholly His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, how shall we than live?” And, living solely from this “narrow” sense of the Gospel, we look, “by the mercies of God”, also to His whole counsel.*
Of course, the Ten Commandments are especially important here, which is why Martin Luther, for example, spent so much time on them in his Large Catechism. The Ten Commandments are one of God’s very concrete ways of showing us what love is and what His plan is, and so we should strive to properly understood them in their whole breadth (positive and negative), especially using the Scriptures, which should always set the parameters. As Lutheran Pastor Holger Sonntag reminds us, these commandments have numerous applications – which will play out in the variety of callings, or vocations that we have (for more on this very needed message of “vocation” see here) – even though they do not have thousands of meanings. Rather, to begin with, they have singular and clear meanings.
(if you have never looked at what Luther said about these Ten Commandments in the Small and Large Catechisms, please stop reading this post and check out one or the other or both now – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed! It is also helpful to read his “Table of duties” in this context – here is the part on the commandments from the LC).
We rightly speak of the perspicuity, or clarity, of the Scriptures. All sound doctrine by which we live is found in the Scriptures, and so these are therefore our source and our focus. So when we talk about God’s plan for our lives, we do not, like some, chase visions, miracles, prophecies, etc. I am a Confessional Lutheran, and I am well aware that sometimes people ask “Are conservative Lutherans anti-Spirit led?”. I think I understand why they sometimes feel compelled to ask this question. The main point here should be that visions, miracles, prophecies, etc. are not what Christianity is about – these are never to be the main focus or what should consume our lives. If they become our focus, we are in danger at the heart of our Christian life, for we trust all things come from his hand (either actively or by what He permits) – particularly things like the Holy Scriptures – regardless of how we feel or what we experience. All, this said, conservative Lutherans certainly need not give off a “dead orthodox” vibe: we will delve more into how God is personally involved in our individual circumstances in part II, going into some detail, but for now it is simply important to state the above unequivocally.**
Again, individual circumstances aside though, there are things that God wants for each and every one of God’s children, as He looks for them, found in Christ, to grow in holiness – being “set apart” for Him in this world. Using the Ten Commandments, the truths of the Apostle’s creed, and prayer (particularly the Lord’s prayer), is a large part of how God works in our hearts to conform us to His image (the benefits the Creed speaks to us are concretely given in the other three parts of the catechism: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and absolution).
Therefore, the foremost things needed for Christian life and growth for all of us is the content of the Creeds, the Commandments, and Christian prayer. But is this not just a bit too programmatic, some – even Confessional Lutherans – might say? We aren’t Methodists after all! Shouldn’t we just live our lives in light of the Gospel and go forth more spontaneously (just loving God and loving neighbor, which is mostly intuitive, we think) – content to know that God will cover our sins as we, perhaps frequently, feel a need to “sin boldly”?
No. It is a very good thing to be structured, deliberate, and reflective when it comes to nurturing our spiritual lives and the environments that we inhabit – that we and others might as useful as we possibly can towards our King’s purposes.
No doubt, we should be confident that God can use all of our “screw-ups” to his glory, as one pastor put it. Still,that does not mean that we should be striving to be set apart with our Lord – becoming ever more mature in holiness. As Paul says in Romans 12:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Again, as noted above, for every Christian, a large part of this means learning more and more to understand and follow the Ten Commandments. Again, see Martin Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms. That said, I think there is a very important thing to add here – often lost today – and that is not that the perfect is the enemy of the good, but that the good is the enemy of the perfect. The God who uses our “screw-ups” to His glory would even have us realize that the good decisions we have made without sin may nevertheless not have been as intelligent or as wise as they potentially could have been. We may rightly have regrets even over choosing a course that was not necessarily sinful in any way whatsoever – chalking it up to immaturity on our part. All this does not mean that more prayer would have necessarily been what we needed, but perhaps more sanctified common sense, formed by the Scriptures. Really, how do I know that God was not giving me a few options (like what Paul talks about in I Cor. 7!) and – at least from time to time – it would be better for me to choose one rather than the other? If this was even the case with our Lord – who learned to avoid the appearance of disobedience, for example – why would it not be true for us? Why should I not assume that it may in fact be the case that there is a better course, seek wisdom from others – and pray – accordingly?
This said, of course it does us no good to lose sleep over decisions that were not the most wise – rather it should drive us back to Christ and the Scriptures so that going forward we might be ready – formed more closely to Christ’s mind – to choose more wisely. And it should go without saying – sad that it often cannot in our increasingly “Best Life Now” environment – that all this is said complete with the realization that the path of the Christian is one of the cross – and not one of earthly glory or success.
And so, what about the role of prayer here? Well, even before talking about God guiding us towards this or that path through prayer or otherwise, I do think it is important to talk about the importance of “sanctified common sense” and what it can potentially mean. Again, all of this is to be understood as going hand in hand with – and not against – the concreta guidance that God provides for all of us in the Ten Commandments.
Cheesy Michael Jackson songs aside, Christians believe – among other things – that they can, by the grace of God, make the world a better place (at least here or there, as God gives them opportunities). In fact, Christian lives lived in obedience to God’s law and in step with God’s Spirit not only sustain and renew the world, but even create new and positive cultural and societal expectations. This is true even if many of our humble and simple attempts to make things better never seem to “take”, and other seemingly stable gains seem to be lost in most no time at all. Speaking of the most foundational components in these efforts to share God’s word and be a force for what is good, true and lovely in the world (see Paul’s admonition in Philippians to pursue these things wherever they are found) we should seek to be not only a virtuous but a well-educated human being. This means first and foremost attaining wisdom from the Scriptures and the Church, but second, also taking what is “good, true and lovely” from those who are not in the church, but nonetheless recognized for being people of both intelligence and wisdom.
…Let me try to illustrate what I am saying with a practical example (a made up story) – tying together what has been said above in a way that even a very secular person could grasp:
A family moves to the United States from South America. They have somehow been given this opportunity to move from their small farming village to an urban area. The family has young children. As they move in, the neighbors are, “fortuitiously”, friendly, eager to offer their help. But tragedy strikes. In the first week, one of the new family’s children – a four year old – chases a ball out into the street and is killed by an oncoming vehicle. Who is to blame, one might ask? The child? No one told him about these things. The parents? No one told them either that such a thing might occur. The neighbors? They were eager to help, but none thought to talk about this.
Should “what ifs” arise? Or should we simply conclude that this was God’s will and move on? It seems to me, considering such a hypothetical example from a Christian perspective, that we should not conclude thusly. Further, we should not try to assign blame to any one person but acknowledge that situations like these will inevitably happen in a fallen world. That said, this still does not mean that we cannot say that education could not have helped… that more intelligence and wisdom could not have made a difference. Of course they could have. The well-meaning neighbor – with more knowledge of the world God made – could very well have seen the potential for these events to unfold, and suggested not allowing the kids to play in a certain area, adult supervision, fences, talking to the children, etc… Or perhaps the family itself could have learned more themselves… somehow.
Surely, here we are all able to see that simple maturity – and wisdom – could have made the difference. We should not run away from this fact – this is precisely why we seek out persons older and more experienced than us – like the historic Christian church, for example – for guidance. But note: this is all able to be seen from a secular perspective alone! And for the pure secularist – excluding notions of God altogether, education will – must – be that which saves the world. But such secularists inevitably become technocrats – and most but not all of them become blind to the wisdom about matters like the natural family, trust and love, for example.This is where the Christian’ view of the world has much to offer. The Christian has the ancient wisdom not only in the Ten Commandments but the whole of the Scriptures to facilitate seeing – and experiencing – these things that others miss… Vishal Mangalwadi, a Christian from India who effected much change in villages there, has this to say about the difference that Christians living by their convictions can make:
“People with strong convictions lead reform movements. Skeptics are, by definition, unsure in their beliefs. A lack of conviction does not inspire people to die for their beliefs and values. Fundamental reforms require the faith of ardent believers, so certain of their convictions that they would take up their crosses and go to the stake for them. Fanaticism can, of course, lead to bigotry – unless one is following a God who sacrifices himself to serve others and commands you to love your neighbor as yourself. Conviction that God is on your side makes you a powerful person.” (p. 345)
I think all Christians – and confessional Lutherans in particular – should especially take Mangalwadi’s words to heart – as we insist on a keeping the jars of clay in the forefront, holding up Christ crucified and the forgiveness, salvation, and life-changing power that message brings whenever we can.
Understandably, one may ask “should the words ‘Christian’ and ‘powerful person’ go together? I think yes, so long as we remember our strength is indeed found in weakness… and in humble and simple things…. Can we really say words like Vishal’s and yet also keep taking the focus off ourselves and looking to our Lord? I think: how can we afford not to? And as we do live such words, we will see that some things can get better, to this or that degree…. It is possible, with wisdom, to create new cultural institutions and patterns of thought. All of these steps are taken humbly of course, and the steps are often short and halting…. again, on earth, all gains and progress may seemingly be lost in the blink of an eye…. But we continue to press on, looking towards the final renovation in the New Heavens and Earth, particularly as God renovates us… (see more reflection on these issues in my series How Jesus Becomes King in Man: What Role Does the Church Have in Building Good Nations)
So again – the point here is that when it comes to the matter of how we should live, Christians should deliberately try to inculcate – through structured or disciplined means – in humble and simple ways – in ways based on both passive and active learning – sanctified common sense. Based primarily on the Holy Scriptures, but also not excluding words of insight and wisdom from those outside of the Christian faith. We are simply addressing matters of how we view God’s will at work in the world and our ability as persons to affect the world differently based on what is taught to us by very ordinary means.
All this said: “What of prayer’s role here?” More will be said about this in the next post, but for now, let us begin by recognizing what I consider to be a very interesting fact: the Lord of the Rings was created by a great Christian mind – and yet we notice with passing interest that though Aragorn, for example, possesses much intelligence and even wisdom (and yes, prowess and skill) he does not pray. None of the characters do – for Providence in those books is mysterious, distant, even uncertain.
But not to us! Not in the Scriptures! For He has come near in the flesh! To say that we walk in the Holy Spirit also means that we carry the death of Christ in our own bodies! And it is through this, that He makes all things new – yes, through His creatures. He works with us in the world.
Practical application? When an evangelical Christian of the American variety – filled with activist fervor – says, for example, “it’s a God thing”, do we need to insist this is necessarily them putting the focus on themselves – or are we willing to consider that it is possible that it could simply be a general child-like confidence in God’s providence and that He answers prayers? (of course, this idea is abused by many. And I suppose it is rejected, or at least fought, by those who have had experiences in their lives which they cannot understand…)
After all, Jesus said: “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7), and there is no reason to say that Jesus is only talking about the Holy Spirit here, as some have asserted (he is saying this as well – see this discussion dealing with the parallel passage in Luke).
Tomorrow, in addition to speaking more on prayer, I will talk in more specific detail about the love that God has for us in Christ Jesus and that He has in giving us the kind of guidance that He does (as seen in the Scriptures) – containing, but not limited to the Ten Commandments. And does God have a “blueprint” for your life? We will also touch on that matter as well.
In the meantime, as we discuss all the ways Christians make a difference in the world, I think it does us well to remember these words from David Zahl, which sync nicely with the picture used at the beginning of this post to lead things off: “our hope is not found in the passing of tests but the forgiveness of failure.”
More on this tomorrow as well….
*Obedience is certainly a goal of the Gospel, as Luther says at the end of the LC. It helps if all of this is thought about in terms of the relationship of parent and child. I do not love my kids because they obey, even as I certainly want them to obey. God did not create us simply to be useful to His purposes and designs, though He certainly desires this of us. He really does desire simply to *be* with us as well. It is that simple really and we don’t need to complicate matters unnecessarily.
**Would I say, as some Confessional Lutherans do, that in the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther said that God only deals with us through Word and Sacrament – and that if you think otherwise you are an “enthusiast” or the Devil is involved?
I would not say this and I find this to be a very interesting take on Luther. Why do we assume Luther in the Smalcald Articles is saying more than simply “we don’t make church doctrines out of things that are outside God’s word”? Luther is writing against people in his day who were saying that God created spiritual life and revealed doctrine to them – not via His “external word” – but via direct impressions in their heart, purportedly given to them by the “Holy Spirit (i.e. the papacy and the enthusiasts receiving new revelations so new doctrines could be made – even really smart and sophisticated enthusiasts like Schwenckfeld were saying this – see here).
So, is a person an enthusiast who believes that God will providentially engineer meetings between certain individuals, answer specific prayers, give us multiple options where we would not sin in any but be wiser in choosing one over the other, etc…? Again, I don’t build my theology around my personal experiences – and I do not put a lot of stock in these things or teach others on the basis of them (like: this is something that God taught me personally that you need to know…)
I resist charismaticism – where experience overrides doctrine… but I would also resist those who would say that these things I describe above are definitely not to be a part of the Christian life, or are simply weaknesses or eccentricities that some less mature Christians may be subject to.
Picture credits: Wikipedia, and others: Clay jars (https://www.flickr.com/photos/oatsy40/8597880684), Vishal (http://myfaithradio.com/authors/vishal-mangalwadi/)