Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Against Cozy Theology

On Sunday I preached on the need for repentance, in accordance with my chosen sermon text (Luke 3:3): "He (John the Baptist) went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Being Advent, I accented the theme of repentance, using the first two questions in the general confession of the liturgy* to elucidate what repentance consists of, and, to bring the Gospel through, I emphasised that repentance is always undertaken with a view to the forgiveness of sins. I mentioned that the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins in Christ's name is the basic content of the church's proclamation (cf Luke 24:46-47).

Afterwards, a parishioner, with constructive intentions, commented that I didn't mention the love of God. In response I agreed that, of course, the love of God was foundational for the Gospel (John 3:16!) but explained that I had to take that knowledge as understood on this occasion because one cannot fit everything into one sermon and in this case Advent and the text determined the theme and tone of the sermon. God's love, of course, will come in spades during Christmas!

The discussion ended with us agreeing that mission - communicating the Gospel - in a "post-Christian" culture is fraught with complications and dangers. One of those dangers, it seems to me, is distorting the Gospel by so majoring on God's love that we minor on or soft-pedal (another musical metaphor, referring to the practice of using a pedal to mute the volume of a piano) the call for repentance and fail to warn of the spiritually deadly consequences of omitting it. Note, please, that I am not protesting about majoring on the Gospel per se - cf Walther : "the Gospel should predominate in the sermon" - but on majoring on the Gospel to the exclusion of the call to repentance, which threatens to distort the Gospel into nothing more than a sort of "I'm OK, you're OK" message.

Anyway, after thinking about this (it's actually a topic I think about quite often in connection with preaching) yesterday, this morning I happened to open a book and read the following:     

"We like to hear about the love of God. But who wants to hear about His wrath or even His righteousness? We love to hear about God's grace, but we are impatient when the preacher tells us about our sin. The hope of heaven is palatable preaching, but don't threaten me with the possibility of hell. But is this cozy theology really a theology to live by?... Luther's theology of the cross presents a life lived in tension between the Law and the Gospel, between what Luther calls the foreign work of God and the proper work of God. Sinners who are to be brought to repentance and faith must hear the Law of God that tells them they are lost sinners, that they are by nature "sinful and unclean", that they have sinned against God "in thought, word and deed" and that "all their righteous deeds are like a polluted garment" (Isaiah 64:6). This is what Luther calls the foreign work of God, which He must perform before He can accomplish His proper work, which is to save man through faith in Jesus Christ. This latter must be accomplished by the Gospel of God's grace in Christ."
Herman A. Preus, A Theology to Live By: The Practical Luther for the Practising Christian (CPH,1977, p57 italics mine)

The "cozy theology" that Preus questions is the theology of a bloodless Christianity which has no place for texts like Isaiah 53:5, no fear of God's wrath, no doctrine of Hell and finally no Cross where the love and the wrath of God intersect and are resolved for the purpose of our salvation. I am definitely against "cozy theology"! Paradoxically, the saving Gospel of God is only proclaimed rightly when we include the "strange" or "foreign" work of God's damning of sinners and calling them to repent in our preaching and teaching.

* I ask each of you in the presence of God who searches the heart:

Do you confess that you have sinned, and do you repent of your sins?

I do.

Do you believe that Jesus Christ has redeemed you from all your sins,

and do you desire forgiveness in his name?

I do.



David Cochrane said...

Indeed. The other ditch is to preach repentance as a promise only to do better next time.

The old Adam loves lady lawlessness. And is plumb head over heels with lady legalism.

Christ have mercy!

Anonymous said...

I liked the old Service Book and Hymnal corporate confession. After the absolution, the pastor said, "On the other hand, I announce to you who do not fully repent of your sins, and feel no contrition for your sins, that Almighty God has not forgiven your sins, and I pray that you repent ere the day of grace be ended."

Sin is real, evil in the world is real - we see it and hear of it everyday. The world is not, "I'm OK, You're OK" we are all sinners who have created, and continue to create, this "mess." People don't like being told they are responsible for the situations in our world - corporately and individually - so they eek the solace and comfort of secularism where no one is to blame and we are all victims, where "man is the measure of all things."

I've come to understand, as I get older I suppose, that justification is not a "one time deal" but occurs every time we sin, repent and confess. I know I'm swimming upstream against the "I was baptized and forgiven" idea that makes the Christian life unnecessary and requires no repentance after baptism. Whatever happened to the subjunctive endings to our prayers, "that we might come to eternal life?"

Keep preaching sin, repentance and forgiveness -- where there is no sin, there is no need of God's love and compassion.

Mark Henderson said...

"I've come to understand, as I get older I suppose, that justification is not a "one time deal" but occurs every time we sin, repent and confess. "
That's interesting, Anon; I said pretty much the same thing in my sermon today, illustrating the point with Luther's Small Catechism explanation of the significance of baptism with water (daily contrition & repentance). I added that we are to bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance every day too as evidence of the life of the new man within us.