Saturday, October 06, 2007

Commanding Obedience

The History course in my class begins at the beginning—with God speaking, “Let there be light.” It’s simple enough, but not so that original sin can’t tangle it up. The curse of that first sin shows up in the answers of Second Graders who continue in the pattern of forefather Adam. Blame is the game.

The test question is: How did Adam and Eve fall out of fellowship with God?

Answer given: They ate the bad fruit from the bad tree.

It takes a few reminders, “God looked at all He created and saw that it was very good.” The tree wasn’t bad, nor was the fruit. Adam and Eve sinned because they disobeyed God’s commandment regarding the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Sometimes they don’t like this answer. It’s too close to another one they don’t like to hear. “Why do we have to?” Because I said so.

Luther writes of it this way:

And so when Adam had been created in such a way that he was, as it were, intoxicated with rejoicing toward God and was delighted also with all the other creatures, there is now created a new tree for the distinguishing of good and evil, so that Adam might have a definite way to express his worship and reverence toward God. After everything had been entrusted to him to make use of it according to his will, whether he wished to do so for necessity or for pleasure, God finally demands from Adam that at this tree of the knowledge of good and evil he demonstrate his reverence and obedience toward God and that he maintain this practice, as it were, of worshiping God by not eating anything from it. (LW 1:94)

Thus a twofold temptation is put before Eve, by which, however, Satan has the same end in view. The first is: “God did not say this; therefore you may eat from this tree.” The second is: “God has given you everything; therefore you have everything in your possession; therefore this one single tree is not forbidden you.” However, each aims at the same end: that Eve be drawn away from the Word and from faith. This command about not eating from the tree, which was given them by God, is a convincing proof that even if his nature had remained perfect, Adam, together with his descendants, would have lived in faith until he would have been translated from this physical life to the spiritual life. Where the Word is, there necessarily faith also is. Here is the Word that he should not eat of this tree; otherwise he would die. Therefore Adam and Eve ought to have believed that this tree was detrimental to their welfare. Thus faith is included in this very commandment. (LW 1:153)

Consider Luther’s language here: demands; obedience; command; commandment. Why, he sounds positively Reformed!

NOT! He sounds particularly Lutheran, with a particularly Lutheran understanding of man’s relationship before God.

My students have taught me this lesson repeatedly. If I use the word “hell” to speak of it, one might say, “Oh! That’s a bad word. You shouldn’t say that one.” Oh really? You say it every day in chapel. Their eyes grow wide with wonder. “We do? Where?” So we stand and recite the Apostles’ Creed. There are no bad words, just words used wrongly.

It is the same with the words “commandment” and “obedience.” Now and again I hear in email conversations that this is “the language of the Reformed. We Lutherans simply don’t speak that way.” Since when? Since we Lutherans contracted a phobia of all things Reformed, perhaps?

I’ll grant that the Reformed and we Lutherans have a different understanding of these terms, and that we have differing applications of them with regard to our relationship to God and His relation ship with us. I will also grant that the manner in which the Reformed use these words will send a good Lutheran diving into the waters of his Baptism for relief. However, that does not mean that these words should fall out of use in the vocabulary of the Lutheran. They are good words, properly used. Good words improperly used need not be sent to the dust heap; they need to be washed off and put to good use.

Consider the fact that the Law is placed first in the Catechism. The anticipated use of the Catechism is for those who are of the family of God: those who are baptized or who are preparing for Baptism. This means the First Chief Part is teaching us to live within the Law, as well as to show us where we have fallen short of its demands. Each Commandment has both the positive and the negative aspect to it: This is what a child of God does not do; this is what a child of God does. From this we hunger for the Gospel.

The Commandments make us aware of our need for a Savior and the Means of Grace through which He comes to us. Are we not to use them daily for self-examination? Further, because Christ has united Himself to us in Baptism, because we are all one Body in Him, how we treat each other is how we treat Him (Ro 12:5). When we sin, we make Christ a participant in that sin with us (1Cor 6:15). The child who defies his parent or teacher is not angry at that one alone, but at his heavenly Father. The one who hits another child also injures Christ. There is no nebulous rationality and lengthy discussion regarding why we obey our God. We do it because He says do this, and we, as His children obey Him. What is a life of repentance all about if there is nothing by which we can judge ourselves? Commandment, obedience, repentance, and forgiveness, that’s what a Lutheran is all about.

Luther treats it this way in the Close of the Commandments:

God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we should fear His wrath and not do anything against them. But He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. Therefore we should love and trust in Him and gladly do what He commands.

The first two sentences are clearly Law, burdening with punishment and the knowledge of an impossible demand. The third sentence gives relief at last. When God promises grace and blessing, He is speaking only of Jesus Christ. He is the only one who kept these commandments, and He did it for our sakes. Because we are baptized in His Name and now have His righteousness imputed to us, we are inheritors of what Jesus did for us. It is only through Jesus that we are able to keep the First Commandment, which requires us to love and trust God above all things so that we are able to keep all His commandments.

When a Lutheran speaks of his obedience, he recognizes the fact that he is dead in his sins and can do nothing to free himself from that situation. Jesus likes talking to dead people. They can’t do anything for themselves. All a dead person can do is what Jesus’ words say. “Lazarus come forth!” and a stinking body comes out of a grave. “Young man, I say to you, arise!” and the man sits up. Neither one of these men had enough wits about him to decide a thing. The dead do what the dead are told to do by the Lord of Life. Christ's word is effective because it is His word. It is the means whereby things happen. When Christ gives a command—Arise!—He also gives the means to obey that command within the word He speaks.

Creation was like that. The Resurrection will be like that. God spoke into the darkness and there was light. The darkness didn’t create the light. God’s speaking created light. John’s Gospel tells us all things were created in and through God’s Son (Jn 1:3). Specifically, John tells us, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). In the Resurrection Jesus will speak, and the dead in Him will arise. Now there is command and obedience for you!

If others want to believe that they can now be obedient to God’s commandments as Adam and Eve could have been prior to the fall in the Garden; if they want to think their relationship before God is right now something besides that of a dead man—that they can decide to accept or choose Jesus as their Savior—why should that scare us Lutherans off from using two perfectly good words in a right, proper and Lutheran way? We Lutherans certainly haven’t stopped ourselves from using the sign of the cross, crucifixes, genuflecting, incense, the liturgy and all manner of so-called too Catholic thingy-dingies.

God’s commandments are not abolished, and we are called as Christians to obey Christ (2Cor 2:5). Where the Lutheran must begin, however, is in his presupposition regarding these terms. We stand before God as beggars, with nothing in our pockets. We have nothing to give Him. We have not kept His commandments; we have not been obedient to Him. Furthermore, we are as dead beggars. We can’t even reach into our pockets to turn them inside-out to shake them one more time to find that one itsy-bitsy to redeem ourselves in good favor with our heavenly Father. Forget that… someone’s even stolen our clothes!

Who can save us? Thanks be to Christ Jesus our Lord! For it is He who clothes us in Himself, making us obedient according to His obedience to His Father’s every word and will.