Rev Dr Edgar Mayer – Living Grace Lutheran Church, Toowoomba – Date: 6 September 2015
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Martin Luther was a Catholic monk that, after wrestling with and trying to understand the Bible, rediscovered how and when someone is a Christian. When do you belong to God? What needs to happen? Amazingly, the church in Luther’s time and throughout history, in regular intervals, has lost this most basic of all Christian teachings. [This is like bakers forgetting how to make bread or car manufacturers forgetting how to construct an engine. How can Christians forget what makes a Christian?] How is a man or woman saved from judgement before God? How can you have peace with God? Do you know?
On the one hand, the answer is not complicated. How is a person saved before God? Please, give me the answer. [Let a few people from the congregation respond and draw attention to the fact that the answers are short and concise and do not seem to be complicated.] According to the Bible, a person is saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Here you have it – simple – short and sweet – and attaining salvation is also not complicated. Looking to Jesus and trusting him is all that is required which is far easier than achieving salvation through laborious religious exercises such as meditating on one hand clapping or going on pilgrimages. Jesus is better than any other religion. He is always there, waiting and welcoming us with open arms. You don’t have to clean up your life before you come to him. All he wants is your trust, believing in him. This is so straight forward and attainable through the goodness of God that if you are not a Christian now, you can become one before this service is over and you go home.
Galatians 2:16 [NIV]: We … know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
Galatians 2:16 [CEV]: We … know that God accepts only those who have faith in Jesus Christ. No one can please God by simply obeying the Law. So we put our faith in Christ Jesus, and God accepted us because of our faith.
On the one hand, the truth about salvation is not complicated but, on the other hand, the church has always managed to lose her hold on when and how a person becomes a Christian. For instance, Charles Wesley – an Anglican minister whom God later used in revival across Great Britain and whose hymns we are still singing today – had this little encounter when he was sick:
Charles Wesley had fallen back into believing that he would be saved by his sincere endeavours of obedience. See The Early Journal of Charles Wesley, London: Charles H. Kelly 1909, p134-135: “[24 February 1738] He [Peter Böhler] asked me, ‘Do you hope to be saved?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘For what reason do you hope it?’ ‘Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God.’ He shook his head, and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, ‘What, are not my endeavours a sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavours? I have nothing else to trust to.’”
On what basis are you being saved? Charles Wesley – a minister – and many like him struggled with answering this question. Two months later, he wrote in his journal, still before his conversion:
Wednesday, 17 May 1738 … Today I first saw Luther on the Galatians, which Mr. Holland had accidentally lit upon. We began, and found him nobly full of faith. My friend, in hearing him, was so affected as to breathe out sighs and groans unutterable. I marvelled that we were so soon and so entirely removed from Him that called us into the grace of Christ, unto another gospel. Who would believe our Church had been founded on this important article of justification by faith alone? I am astonished I should ever think this a new doctrine …
How could Charles Wesley be an Anglican minister, not even two hundred years after Luther and officiating in a church that expressed the truth in various church orders (liturgical traditions), no longer have any clue about the importance of faith for salvation? He had thought that this was a new teaching. And only when he read Luther, he discovered that it was old and basic and foundational.
What makes the church forget the most basic truth of salvation? The Lutheran Confessions – the collection of public statements by Lutherans on their faith in the face of being challenged about what they believe – say that “faith is not an easy thing, as our opponents imagine” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV – Justification, paragraphs 248-250). Why is faith not an easy thing? What should be difficult about such a simple sentence such as “salvation by faith in Jesus Christ”? And – to throw another confusing thought into the mix – why would the opponents of saving faith claim that it was easy? I repeat the quote from the Lutheran Confessions: “Faith is not an easy thing, as our opponents imagine” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV – Justification, paragraphs 248-250).
The heart of the matter is that “saving faith” is more than an intellectual concept. It is more than a teaching instruction – more than our best endeavours to get it right. “Saving faith” is an experience and, without having the experience of faith, you cannot really understand what it means and what it is. According to the Bible, faith is a gift from God which makes faith something supernatural that affects our mind, will and emotions:
Ephesians 2:8: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
1 Corinthians 1:17-18: For Christ did ... send me … to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words [the gospel is more than an intellectual concept], lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God [power that is experienced].
Romans 1:18: For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes …
Romans 15:13: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him [as you exercise faith in him], so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
1 Thessalonians 1:6-8: … you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.
Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God [belonging to God through faith] is a matter … of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
For most of my life, I also missed the experience of God in the gift of faith, and in hindsight find this amazing. How could I grow up in a Christian household and the church and not learn the true nature of saving faith?
Just this year, after twenty-nine years of marriage, my wife Tatjana told me the story of her conversion at the age of sixteen. At that time, we were going to the same youth group in Germany. While I had grown up in a Christian household and was a regular at the group meetings, Tatjana had considered herself to be an atheist and only joined later.
She had a friend who had recently become a Christian in our youth group, and this friend kept nagging Tatjana to come along as well. Finally, Tatjana said “yes”, and before long she desired to become a Christian as well.
Tatjana asked her Christian friends how she could become a Christian. They responded by checking up on what she had learned and believed now. They asked her: “Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for you on the cross?” She said: “Yes.” They asked her again: “Do you believe that on account of his sacrifice your sins are forgiven?” She said: “Yes.” They had more questions: “Do you want to live with him and follow him?” She said: “Yes.”
In the end, completing their little check-up, the members of our youth group (sixteen years and older) concluded that Tatjana had faith and was therefore a Christian. As I remember, I was not one of those involved in these conversations, but I would have agreed with my friends’ assessment and would have done so for most of my life. However, Tatjana said: “No. I don't think I am a Christian.” “Yes, you are,” they said. But Tatjana insisted: “No, I don’t feel like I am.”
After a while, Tatjana stopped arguing and went to a visiting pastor and evangelist. She told him that she wanted to be a Christian, but did not think that she was one, even though her friends were confident that she was. The pastor and Tatjana sat together, and he asked her whether she still needed to confess a sin – something that was weighing on her – before God. There was none. Then the pastor just prayed a simple prayer for the Holy Spirit to come on Tatjana and – from one moment to the next – she knew that she was being saved. She was now a Christian and, for the rest of the night, she could not stop giggling. At the time, she did not know what had happened to her, but God had granted her faith and the joy of salvation through the Holy Spirit.
For most of my life, including many years as a pastor, I would have given Tatjana the wrong counsel. It bothers me now, but throughout the years I have misguided people. I assessed them as having faith when they had none. My assumption was that anyone agreeing with the truth of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and responding to an invitation for salvation was automatically a Christian. I paid no attention to what the Holy Spirit was doing and whether he did break through in creating a newborn child of God.
Luther wrote a foreword to Romans, a book in the Bible, and in this foreword he did his utmost to illustrate the experience of faith. The words were so powerful that John Wesley, on hearing these words, experienced his own breakthrough of attaining “saving faith”. He said that suddenly he felt his heart being “strangely warmed” which was not a wildly ecstatic experience (he was English after all) but he felt that something from God had happened to him.
At first, Wesley struggled with his subdued emotions. He thought that he should feel more joyful, but then he relaxed and accepted that God works in different ways with different people. The important thing was that he felt at peace with God:
But it was not long before the enemy suggested, “This cannot be faith; for where is thy joy?” Then was I taught that peace and victory over sin are essential to faith in the Captain of our salvation; but that, as to transports of joy that usually attend the beginning of it, especially in those who have mourned deeply, God sometimes giveth, sometimes withholdeth, them according to the counsels of His will.
Luther was a bit freer (so it seems) in his emotions than Wesley. When he came into saving faith, he experienced passionate joy. He writes: “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.” Later, he explained the nature of faith with these words:
Preface to the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans by Martin Luther, 1483-1546, translated by Bro. Andrew Thornton, OSB: … Faith is a work of God in us, which changes us and brings us to birth anew from God (cf. John 1). It kills the old sinful self [original: Adam], makes us completely different people in heart, mind, senses, and all our powers, and brings the Holy Spirit with it. What a living, creative, active, powerful thing is faith! It is impossible that faith ever stop doing good. Faith doesn’t ask whether good works are to be done, but, before it is asked, it has done them. It is always active. Whoever doesn’t do such works is without faith; he gropes and searches about him for faith and good works but doesn’t know what faith or good works are. Even so, he chatters on with a great many words about faith and good works.
Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God’s grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God’s grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace. It is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire. Therefore be on guard against your own false ideas and against the chatterers who think they are clever enough to make judgements about faith and good works but who are in reality the biggest fools. Ask God to work faith in you; otherwise you will remain eternally without faith, no matter what you try to do or fabricate.
Faith is an experience which means that something needs to happen beyond the intellectual understanding of the concept. And this is precisely where churches throughout history have gone wrong and where thousands upon thousands of people have practised church-going and have prayed their prayers all of their lives but in the end died without the forgiveness of their sins and without salvation because they never knew what real faith was.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran professor in the time of Nazi Germany and a martyr of the church (respected and read even now), found brilliant words to point out where the Lutheran church in Germany had gone wrong (and still goes wrong), and not only the Lutheran church in Germany. He put his finger on the general problem:
Cheap grace [lesser human ideas of grace and faith] means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth … An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure the remission of sins. The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace … (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM Press 1959, p35-36).
Faith as a teaching principle – faith as a worldview that upholds the correct understanding of salvation – is not enough to be saving faith. You need an experience of God. Bonhoeffer, like the people who wrote the Lutheran Confessions (see the quote from before: “Faith is not an easy thing, as our opponents imagine”), found that his opponents rested easily in what they thought was faith but they missed it.
How do you come into the experience of faith? What is the key that unlocks the experience of God? I give you a few more quotes from the Lutheran Confessions. Please listen and then tell me the answer. How you come into the experience of faith?
Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV – Justification, paragraphs 248-250: … We have already shown often enough what we mean by faith. We are not talking about idle knowledge … but about a faith that resists the terrors of conscience and encourages and consoles terrified hearts. Such a faith is not an easy thing, as our opponents imagine; nor is it a human power, but a divine power that makes us alive and enables us to overcome death and the devil.
Augsburg Confession, Article XX – Of Good Works, paragraph 15: But, although this doctrine [justification by faith] is despised by the inexperienced, nevertheless God-fearing and anxious consciences find by experience that it brings the greatest consolation, because consciences cannot be pacified through any works, but only by faith, when they are sure that, for Christ’s sake, they have a gracious God. Paul teaches [Rom. 5:1]: ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God.’ This whole doctrine is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified conscience; neither can it be understood apart from that conflict. Therefore inexperienced and profane men judge ill concerning this matter, who dream that Christian righteousness is nothing but the civil righteousness of natural reason.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article III: Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law, paragraphs 21-23: Likewise, the faith of which we speak exists in repentance, i.e., it is conceived in the terrors of conscience, which feels the wrath of God against our sins, and seeks the remission of sins, and to be freed from sin. And in such terrors and other afflictions this faith ought to grow and be strengthened. Wherefore it cannot exist in those who live according to the flesh who are delighted by their own lusts and obey them. Accordingly, Paul says, Rom. 8, 1: There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. So, too 8, 12. 13: We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye, through the Spirit, do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. Wherefore, the faith which receives remission of sins in a heart terrified and fleeing from sin does not remain in those who obey their desires, neither does it coexist with mortal sin.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession, [Article III: Of Love and the Fulfilling of the Law, paragraphs 228-233] Article IV: Justification, paragraphs 349-353: We are regenerated and receive the Holy Ghost for the very end that the new life may produce new works, new dispositions, the fear and love of God, hatred of concupiscence, etc. This faith of which we speak arises in repentance, and ought to be, established and grow in the midst of good works, temptations, and dangers, so that we may continually be the more firmly persuaded that God for Christ’s sake cares for us, forgives us, hears us. This is not learned without many and great struggles. How often is conscience aroused, how often does it incite even to despair when it brings to view sins, either old or new, or the impurity of our nature! This handwriting is not blotted out without a great struggle, in which experience testifies what a difficult matter faith is.
And while we are cheered in the midst of the terrors and receive consolation, other spiritual movements at the same time grow, the knowledge of God, fear of God, hope, love of God; and we are regenerated as Paul says, Col. 3, 10 and 2 Cor. 3, 18, in the knowledge of God, and, beholding the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, i.e., we receive the true knowledge of God, so that we truly fear Him, truly trust that we are cared for, and that we are heard by Him. This regeneration is, as it were, the beginning of eternal life, as Paul says, Rom. 8, 10: If Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. And 2 Cor. 5, 2. 3: We are clothed upon, if so be that, being clothed, we shall not be found naked.
From these statements the candid reader can judge that we certainly require good works, since we teach that this faith arises in repentance, and in repentance ought continually to increase; and in these matters we place Christian and spiritual perfection, if repentance and faith grow together in repentance. This can be better understood by the godly than those things which are taught by the adversaries concerning contemplation or perfection.
The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, Article II – Free Will, paragraph 70: For it is once for all true that in genuine conversion a change, new emotion [renewal] and movement in understanding, will and heart must occur, namely, that the heart perceive sin, dread God’s wrath, turn itself from sin, perceive and accept the promise of grace in Christ, have good spiritual thoughts, a Christian purpose and diligence, and strive against the flesh. For where none of these occurs or is present there is also no true conversion.
“The faith of which we speak arises in repentance.” “This whole doctrine [of justification by faith] is to be referred to that conflict of the terrified conscience [which feels the wrath of God against sins]; neither can it be understood apart from that conflict.” Do you know anything about a conflict where your own soul is terrified by the wrath of God against all sin? Do you ever feel awful because of sin in your life? And then, when this happens, do you know by experience that sometimes faith is easy as a theory but difficult to have in practice, as the Lutheran Confessions say: “How often is conscience aroused, how often does it incite even to despair when it brings to view sins, either old or new, or the impurity of nature! This handwriting [the accusations of sin] is not blotted out without a great struggle, in which experience testifies what a difficult matter faith is.”
Do you know about repentance – the terror that is smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin and the reaching out to Jesus in faith – the terrible and heart wrenching conviction of sin and daring to look to Jesus alone for forgiveness? Tatjana was a case where her conscience was not terrified. She simply wanted what these other Christians had. But there was an awareness that she needed something from God.
Augsburg Confession, Article XII – Of Repentance, paragraphs 2-6: Now, repentance consists properly of these two parts: One is contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin; the other is faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comforts the conscience, and delivers it from terrors.
Repentance is where the church always seems to fall down – especially the ongoing need of repentance in a life of discipleship (that is following Jesus). Repentance is not our favourite topic. It is serious and confronting. But it is always through the lack of repentance that faith – the experience of genuine faith – is lost. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was frustrated that the modern church managed to ignore the practice of repentance even though there was little religious piety. How can you not feel the need to do anything about your sin when, throughout the whole church, people are no different from the people of the world and you are even proud of it (assuming that this is a superior understanding of grace)? I quote him again:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Discipleship, London: SCM Press 1959, p35-36: Cheap grace [lesser human ideas of grace and faith] means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system … The Church which holds the correct doctrine of grace has, it is supposed, ipso facto a part in that grace. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin …
… Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before … we are still sinners ‘even in the best life’ as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world …
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance … Cheap grace is grace without discipleship …
Even today, people with very little piety – barely reading the Bible, barely praying, barely attending church – are quite comfortable in their faith or what they assume is faith and they resist any shaking up of their conscience. [Any prophetic preaching of repentance and church reformation has never really been popular in the church.] It is astonishing but thoughts of repentance seem to be difficult even for the most backslidden Christian. How much harder it must be then for those that are very religious? And yet, Jesus confronted them with words that could not have been any more hurtful in their bluntness:
Matthew 15:7-9: … These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain …
With these words, Jesus attacked the church elite – those that “fast often” (Matthew 9:14), those that “make long prayers” (Matthew 23:14), those that “cross land and sea to make one convert” (Matthew 23:15) and those that “are careful to tithe even the tiniest income” (Matthew 23:23). I find it a little easier to sympathize with full-on Christians – those that are absolutely committed – when they fail to see their need of repentance. Yet, Jesus looked beyond their zeal and pointed out their number one stumbling block – human pride:
Luke 18:9-14: To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”
I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Pride makes us blind to our sin – there is self-deception – and we do not recognize the true nature of our piety. The Pharisee prayed, fasted twice a week and gave a tenth of his income to God but these actions did not spring from faith and the prompting of the Holy Spirit which dwells in us through faith. These pious actions became the man’s source of religious pride and were his own doing. They were his own performance which, so he thought, allowed him to feel good in church without humbling himself before God, at least have not the same need of deep repentance as the tax collector. But, as Jesus also pointed out (without the experience of genuine faith which comes with the Holy Spirit), many of the religious exercises ended up contradicting the will of God: “Why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God” (Matthew 15:3)?
Are you too proud to repent? I would like to say “no” and I would like to say that I am quick to repent but why then do I not appreciate a brother or sister coming to me with correction? Why do I defend myself before taking the time to really listen? How about you? Right now in this church, I have a number of people on my heart that are no longer as vibrant in the faith as they were a few years ago – (they have decreased their worship attendance, they are seen less at prayer, their spiritual senses seem a little blunted), but do I go and have a chat with them? No – at least, not yet – because I don’t want still another person taking offence. I am not confident that a call to repentance would be appreciated.
Repentance is humbling. (Doesn’t the pastor have to be without blemish, a mature “man of God”? What will you think of me when you see my weaknesses?) And repentance is uncomfortable because no one likes to feel the wrath of God against sin.
Martin Luther knew by experience that he himself struggled with repentance and he knew by experience how God cracked open his pride. God drove him to repentance by suffering:
Luther as quoted in Gerhard O. Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), p82: It is impossible for a person not to be puffed up by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.
Luther as quoted in Eric Gritsch, Martin Luther: Faith in Christ and the Gospel (New York: New City Press, 1996), p37: God … is near to all that are lowly. Peter says: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pt 5:5). And this is the source of human love and praise of God. For no one can praise God without first loving him. No one can love him unless God makes himself known to him in the most lovable and intimate fashion. And he can make himself known only through those works of his which he reveals in us, and which we feel and experience within ourselves.
But where there is this experience, namely, that he is a God who looks to the lowly and helps only the poor, despised, afflicted, miserable, forsaken, and those who are nothing, there a hearty love for him is born. The heart overflows with gladness and goes leaping and dancing for the great pleasure it has found in God. There the Holy Spirit is present and has taught us in a moment such exceeding great knowledge and gladness through this experience.
For this reason God has also imposed death on us all and laid the cross of Christ, together with countless sufferings and afflictions, on his beloved children and Christians. In fact, sometimes he even lets us fall into sin, in order that he may look to the lowly even more, bring help to many, perform manifold works, show himself a true Creator, and thereby make himself known and worthy of love and praise …
. “My Soul does Magnify the Lord” These words [of Mary] express the strong ardour and exuberant joy whereby all her mind and life are inwardly exalted in the Spirit … “My life and all my senses float in the love and praise of God and in lofty pleasures, so that I am no longer mistress of myself; I am exalted, more than I exalt myself, to praise the Lord.” That is the experience of all those through whom the divine sweetness and Spirit are poured; they cannot find words to utter what they feel. For to praise the Lord with gladness is not a work of man; it is rather a joyful suffering, and the work of God alone. It cannot be taught in words, but must be learned in one’s own experience …
But here we find those [original: two kinds of false spirits] that cannot sing the Magnificat aright. They [original: first, there are those who] will not praise Him unless He does well to them … These seem indeed to be greatly praising God; but because they are unwilling to suffer oppression and to be in the depths, they can never experience the proper works of God, and therefore can never truly love nor praise Him.
Martin Luther quoted in Gerhard Forde: On Being a Theologian of the Cross, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1997, p86-7: Other virtues may be perfected by doing: but faith, hope, and love, only by suffering, by suffering I say, that is, by being passive under the divine operation ... The soul is taken hold of [by the pure Word of God] and does not take hold of anything itself; that is, it is stripped of its own garments, of its shoes, of all its possessions, and of all its imaginations, and is taken away by the Word ... into the wilderness ... to invisible things, into the vineyard, and into the marriage chamber. But this leading, this taking away, and this stripping, miserably tortures [the soul]. For it is a hard path to walk in, and a straight and narrow way, to leave all visible things, to be stripped of all natural senses and ideas, and to be led out of all those things to which we have been accustomed; this, indeed, is to die, and to descend into hell.
Repentance is uncomfortable and suffering that nullifies our pride is also uncomfortable but Luther treasured the discipline above all else because he learned that for him suffering became the gateway to experiencing God in faith – the divine sweetness of his presence – praising God with gladness – irrespective of one’s outward circumstances. Luther had many seasons of suffering but they kept his faith alive and kept him close to God.
And the Bible confirms Luther’s esteem of suffering for experiencing the most of God:
2 Corinthians 1:3-10: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ …
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced … We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself … But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.
2 Corinthians 12:7-12: And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Hebrews 12:4-13: In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
As a Christian, you are far safer spiritually in seasons of suffering (when it is not too crushing and too long) than success. But we are not always suffering and therefore there must be other ways of entering into repentance and the experience of faith. I close with two quotes from Luther where he gives practical counsel to Christians who struggle to feel anything in their faith and he identifies this coldness of the heart as a real danger to faith. Saving faith is an experience:
Large Catechism, Article III – Of Prayer, paragraph 26-30: But where there is to be a true prayer, there must be earnestness. Men must feel their distress, and such distress as presses them and compels them to call and cry out; then prayer will be made spontaneously, as it ought to be, and men will require no teaching how to prepare for it and to attain to the proper devotion.
But the distress which ought to concern us most, both as regards ourselves and every one, you will find abundantly set forth in the Lord’s Prayer. Therefore, it is to serve also to remind us of the same, that we contemplate it and lay it to heart, lest we become remiss in prayer. For we all have enough that we lack, but the great want is that we do not feel nor see it. Therefore, God also requires that you lament and plead such necessities and wants, not because He does not know them, but that you may kindle your heart to stronger and greater desires, and make wide and open your cloak to receive much.
Therefore, every one of us should accustom himself from his youth daily to pray for all his wants, whenever he is sensible of anything affecting his interests or that of other people among whom he may live, as for preachers, the government, neighbours, domestics, and always (as we have said) to hold up to God His commandment and promise, knowing that He will not have them disregarded.
This I say because I would like to see these things brought home again to the people that they might learn to pray truly, and not go about coldly and indifferently, whereby they become daily more unfit for prayer; which is just what the devil desires, and for what he works with all his powers. For he is well aware what damage and harm it does him when prayer is in proper practise.
For this we must know, that all our shelter and protection rest in prayer alone. For we are far too feeble to cope with the devil and all his power and adherents that set themselves against us, and they might easily crush us under their feet …
Large Catechism, Article V – Of the Sacrament of the Altar, paragraphs 75-84: But if you say: What, then, shall I do if I cannot feel such distress or experience hunger and thirst for the Sacrament? Answer: For those who are so minded that they do not realize their condition I know no better counsel than that they put their hand into their bosom to ascertain whether they also have flesh and blood. And if you find that to be the case, then go, for your good, to St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, and hear what sort of a fruit your flesh is: Now the works of the flesh (he says [Gal. 5, 19ff ]) are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revelings, and such like.
Therefore, if you cannot feel it, at least believe the Scriptures; they will not lie to you, and they know your flesh better than you yourself. Yea, St. Paul further concludes in Rom. 7, 18: I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing. If St. Paul may speak thus of his flesh, we do not propose to be better nor more holy.
But that we do not feel it is so much the worse; for it is a sign that there is a leprous flesh which feels nothing, and yet [the leprosy] rages and keeps spreading. Yet, as we have said, if you are quite dead to all sensibility, still believe the Scriptures, which pronounce sentence upon you. And, in short, the less you feel your sins and infirmities, the more reason have you to go to the Sacrament to seek help and a remedy.
In the second place, look about you and see whether you are also in the world, or if you do not know it, ask your neighbours about it. If you are in the world, do not think that there will be lack of sins and misery. For only begin to act as though you would be godly and adhere to the Gospel, and see whether no one will become your enemy, and, moreover, do you harm, wrong, and violence, and likewise give you cause for sin and vice. If you have not experienced it, then let the Scriptures tell you, which everywhere give this praise and testimony to the world.
Besides this, you will also have the devil about you, whom you will not entirely tread under foot, because our Lord Christ Himself could not entirely avoid him. Now, what is the devil? Nothing else than what the Scriptures call him, a liar and murderer. A liar, to lead the heart astray from the Word of God, and to blind it, that you cannot feel your distress or come to Christ. A murderer, who cannot bear to see you live one single hour. If you could see how many knives, darts, and arrows are every moment aimed at you, you would be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as possible. But there is no reason why we walk so securely and heedlessly, except that we neither think nor believe that we are in the flesh, and in this wicked world or in the kingdom of the devil.
Therefore, try this and practise it well, and do but examine yourself, or look about you a little, and only keep to the Scriptures. If even then you still feel nothing, you have so much the more misery to lament both to God and to your brother. Then take advice and have others pray for you, and do not desist until the stone be removed from your heart.
Then, indeed, the distress will not fail to become manifest, and you will find that you have sunk twice as deep as any other poor sinner, and are much more in need of the Sacrament against the misery which unfortunately you do not see, so that, with the grace of God, you may feel it more and become the more hungry for the Sacrament, especially since the devil plies his force against you, and lies in wait for you without ceasing to seize and destroy you, soul and body, so that you are not safe from him one hour. How soon can he have brought you suddenly into misery and distress when you least expect it!
Why was Luther so worried about people that no longer felt anything when they prayed or considered coming to Holy Communion? Luther was surrounded by church people – from the pope down – who no longer knew the true nature of saving faith and Luther knew that they had lost their knowledge for a lack of Christian experience. Whoever experiences nothing, all too easily mistakes “saving faith” for an intellectual concept – just knowing about sin and salvation – holding the correct doctrine about grace – (agreeing to live in a Christian bubble) – but it is more than that. “Saving faith” is an experience of the living God and if you do not experience anything of God in your faith – neither his comfort of forgiveness that consoles an anxious conscience, nor any sense of peace and joy – you do not really understand what “saving faith” means nor what it is.
At the heart of Lutheran preaching (and this is not particularly Lutheran but Lutherans stress this greatly) is to know when to challenge people with a call to repentance and when to console them with forgiveness. What do you need to today? If you no longer feel anything in your faith, become a little anxious. Trust the Bible that tells you that you are not yet perfect. Don’t let Satan deceive you. See your sin (examine yourself, allow the Holy Spirit to convict you of your pride and other sins), see your need, pray and let others pray for you until God removes the stone of indifference and coldness from your heart. Don’t lose your faith which makes you experience God. Amen.
Congregation repents together and offers prayers of repentance (the pastor may take the lead), then there is time spent on receiving forgiveness.
“By the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ and by his command I declare to all of you who repent and believe: God forgives you. Christ befriends you. The Holy Spirit renews and changes your life. Peace be with you. Amen.”
Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV – Justification, paragraphs 248-250: From this it is clear that James is not against us when he distinguishes between dead and living faith and condemns the idle and smug minds who dream they have faith but do not … We have already shown often enough what we mean by faith. We are not talking about idle knowledge, such as even demons have, but about a faith that resists the terrors of conscience and encourages and consoles terrified hearts. Such a faith is not an easy thing, as our opponents imagine; nor is it a human power, but a divine power that makes us alive and enables us to overcome death and the devil.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article IV – Justification, paragraph 48: The faith that justifies, however, is no mere historical knowledge, but the firm acceptance of God’s offer of promising forgiveness of sins and justification. To avoid the impression that it is merely knowledge, we add that to have faith means to want and to accept the promised offer of forgiveness of sins and justification.
Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XII – Penitence, paragraph 60: When our opponents talk about faith … they do not mean justifying but the general faith which believes that God exists, that punishments hang over the wicked, etc. Beyond such ‘faith’ we require everyone to believe that his sins are forgiven him. We are contending for this personal faith … This faith follows on our terrors, overcoming them and restoring peace to the conscience. To this faith we attribute justification and regeneration, for it frees us from our terrors and brings forth peace, joy, and a new life in the heart.
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article III – Of the Righteousness of Faith before God, paragraphs 6-12: This article concerning justification by faith (as the Apology says) is the chief article in the entire Christian doctrine, without which no poor conscience can have any firm consolation, or can truly know the riches of the grace of Christ … our doctrine, faith, and confession are as follows:
Concerning the righteousness of faith before God we believe, teach, and confess unanimously, in accordance with the comprehensive summary of our faith and confession presented above, that poor sinful man is justified before God, that is, absolved and declared free and exempt from all his sins, and from the sentence of well-deserved condemnation, and adopted into sonship and heirship of eternal life, without any merit or worth of our own, also without any preceding, present, or any subsequent works, out of pure grace, because of the sole merit, complete obedience, bitter suffering, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ alone, whose obedience is reckoned to us for righteousness.
These treasures are offered us by the Holy Ghost in the promise of the holy Gospel; and faith alone is the only means by which we lay hold upon, accept, and apply, and appropriate them to ourselves.
This faith is a gift of God … Paul says that we are justified by faith, Rom. 3, 28, or that faith is counted to us for righteousness, Rom. 4, 5 … he says that we are made righteous by the obedience of One, Rom. 5, 19, or that by the righteousness of One justification of faith came to all men, Rom. 5, 18.
Smalcald Articles – The Second Part: The first and chief article is this,
1. That Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins, and was raised again for our justification, Rom. 4, 25.
2. And He alone is the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world, John 1, 29; and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all, Is. 53, 6.
3. Likewise: All have sinned and are justified without merit [freely, and without their own works or merits] by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood, Rom. 3, 23f.
4. Now, since it is necessary to believe this, and it cannot be otherwise acquired or apprehended by any work, law, or merit, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us as St. Paul says, Rom. 3, 28: For we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law. Likewise 3, 26: That He might be just, and the Justifier of him which believeth in Christ.
5. Of this article nothing can be yielded or surrendered [nor can anything be granted or permitted contrary to the same], even though heaven and earth, and whatever will not abide, should sink to ruin. For there is none other name under heaven, given among men whereby we must be saved, says Peter, Acts 4, 12. And with His stripes we are healed, Is. 53, 5. And upon this article all things depend which we teach and practice in opposition to the Pope, the devil, and the [whole] world. Therefore, we must be sure concerning this doctrine, and not doubt; for otherwise all is lost, and the Pope and devil and all things gain the victory and suit over us.
You may quote the Bible and say that according to 2 Corinthians 5:7: “We live by faith, not by sight” – but two verses earlier the same Bible passage confirms that we do indeed experience God – 2 Corinthians 5:5: “… God … has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” There is much that we do not yet understand – there is much that we do not yet see (not by sight) – and there is plenty of frustration in our mortal bodies – there is the cross of discipleship – but – as Christians – we are not without an experience of God. We experience the deposit of the Holy Spirit who is guaranteeing what is to come – Romans 8:14: “ . those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” Galatians 4:6: “… God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ …” 1 John 4:24: “… this is how we know that Jesus Christ lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.”
Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article V – Of the Law and the Gospel, paragraph 11: Therefore the Spirit of Christ must not only comfort, but also through the office of the Law reprove the world of sin, John 16, 8, and thus must do in the New Testament, as the prophet says, Is. 28, 21, opus alienum, ut faciat opus proprium, that is, He must do the work of another (reprove), in order that He may [afterwards] do His own work, which is to comfort and preach of grace. For to this end He was earned [from the Father] and sent to us by Christ, and for this reason, too, He is called the Comforter …
 Edgar Mayer, Experiencing God Together (Toowoomba: Grace Publishing, 2017), 108–9.
 The Journal of John Wesley, edited by Percy Livingstone Parker, Chicago: Moody Press, p64.
 Bainton, Roland: Here I Stand. A Life of Martin Luther, New York: Mentor Books 1950, p49.
 Continuation of Luther quote (his interpretation of the Magnificat): The whole world is nowadays filled with praise and service to God, with singing and preaching, with organs and trumpets, and the Magnificat is magnificently sung; but alackaday! that this precious canticle should be rendered by us so utterly without salt or savour. For we sing only when it fares well with us; as soon as it fares ill, we have done with singing and no longer esteem God highly, but suppose He can or will do nothing for us. Then the Magnificat also must languish …
O we poor mortals! if we come into a little wealth or might or honour, yea if we are a whit fairer than other men, we cannot abide being made equal to any one beneath us, but are puffed up beyond all measure. What should we do if we possessed such great and lofty blessings?
Therefore God lets us remain poor and hapless, because we cannot leave His tender gifts undefiled, nor keep an even mind, but let our spirits rise or fall according as he gives or takes away his gifts. But Mary’s heart remains at all times the same; she lets God have His will with her, and draws from it all only a good comfort, joy and trust in God. Thus we too should do; that would be to sing a right Magnificat. “And my Spirit hath Rejoiced in God my Saviour” We have seen what is meant by “spirit”; it is that which lays hold by faith on things incomprehensible. Mary, therefore, calls God her Saviour, or her Salvation, even though she neither saw nor felt that this was so, but trusted in sure confidence that He was her Saviour and her Salvation. Which faith came to her through the work God had wrought within her. And, truly, she sets things in their proper order when she calls God her Lord before calling Him her Saviour, and when she calls Him her Saviour before recounting His works. Whereby she teaches us to love and praise God for Himself alone, and in the right order, and not selfishly to seek anything at His hands. This is done when one praises God because He is good, regards only His bare goodness, and finds one’s joy and pleasure in that alone. That is a lofty, pure and tender mode of loving and praising God, and well becomes this Virgin’s high and tender spirit.
But the impure and perverted lovers, who are nothing else than parasites and who seek their own advantage in God, neither love nor praise His bare goodness, but have an eye to themselves and consider only how good God is to them, that is, how deeply He makes them feel His goodness and how many good things He does to them. They esteem Him highly, are filled with joy and sing His praises, so long as this feeling continues. But as soon as ever He hides His face and withdraws the rays of His goodness, leaving them bare and in misery, their love and praise are at an end. They are unable to love and praise the bare, unfelt goodness that is hidden in God.
Whereby they prove that their spirit did not rejoice in God their Saviour, and that they had no true love and praise for His bare goodness. They delighted in their salvation much more than in their Saviour, in the gift more than in the Giver, in the creature rather than in the Creator. For they are not able to preserve an even mind in plenty and in want, in wealth and in poverty; as St. Paul says, “I know how to abound and how to suffer want.” Here apply the words in Psalm 49, “They will prime thee when thou shalt do well with them.” That is to say, they love not Thee, but themselves; if they have but Thy good and pleasant things, they care naught for Thee. As Christ also said to them that sought Him, “Verily I say unto you, you seek me not because you have seen miracles, but because you did eat of the loaves and were filled.”