Reforming Prayer: Martin Luther and the Heart of the Reformation

We often think of the Reformation as being primarily theological in nature, as a rediscovery of the gospel of Jesus Christ summed up in the five solas. Certainly this is true, as far as it goes, but we can forget that the Reformers were just as concerned with the reformation of piety, that is the practice and discipline of godliness. In reality, I think that it is doubtful whether the Reformers would have made much distinction at all between the head and the heart, between a theologically-formed mind and a piety-formed life. William R. Russell, in fact, goes so far as to say that the heart of Luther’s reforming program was the reformation of prayer which the reformation of theology was meant to assist. Russell writes:

[T]this heart of the Lutheran Reformation beats with two chambers. In addition to the informational dimension of the Lutheran reform of catechesis, there is a second, intimately related aspect of Luther’s reform strategy. This aspect of Luther’s work has likewise been neglected or devalued by common interpretations of Luther’s life and work. In addition to the educational content of Lutheran catechesis, there is an experiential and practical aspect. This other chamber of the heart in Luther’s theology cannot be separated from the informational dimension of the catechism. The second chamber is the emphasis on the interplay between theology and practice, between ideas and ritual. Specifically, Luther sought to reform how the church prays. For Luther, the act of Christian prayer “enacts” doctrine, just as doctrine “informs” prayer. They are inseparable in Luther’s understanding of catechesis. Indeed, for 116174745_martinluthertischgebet_34041_2235223_epdneetz_i01Luther, informed prayer is the goal or purpose of catechesis.

From his earliest public statements and writings onward, Luther makes a strategic move to integrate instruction in the basics of Christian doctrine with the basics of Christian prayer. There is an early and sustained theological connection between catechesis and prayer in Luther’s reformation program. For example, already in October of 1516, fully a year before he posted the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther preached on the Lord’s Prayer and published both a Latin and German exposition of it. The reformer returned to this theme again five months later, when he preached a series on the Lord’s Prayer during Lent of 1517….

Beyond these early works, three writings in particular emerge as programmatic in Luther’s mission to use catechesis to reform the prayer life of the church: the 1522 Personal Prayer Book, the 1529 catechism, and the 1535 treatise, A Simple Way to Pray for a Good Friend. When these three additional documents are interpreted together as part of Luther’s overall reformation strategy, catechesis and prayer can be seen as the “heart” in Luther’s theology….

In A Simple Way to Pray, Luther uses the catechism of 1529, as he turns the various parts into prayers. For Luther, the content of catechesis is also the content of Christian prayer. Ultimately, then, the primary goal of catechesis is to instruct Christians in the basics of prayer. From Luther’s perspective, prayer is the response of the faithful to the relationship initiated by God in Jesus Christ. This relational dimension of Luther’s understanding of prayer is evident in the metaphors the reformer uses to describe prayer, the majority of which are personal in character. For example: God is the physician, the believer is the patient; God is the King, the believer is the subject; God is the groom, the believer is the bride; and, preeminently, God is Heavenly Father, the believer is child. With this in mind, Luther apparently sought to reach at least two interrelated goals with respect to his catechetical emphasis on prayer. His first goal was to teach believers about the one to whom they were to pray. This goal would involve a proper theological understanding of the basics of Christian theology, summarized in the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Second, Luther taught believers what and how to pray. He therefore chose a catechetical strategy that delineated the basics of theology in a manner that could be grasped by what he called “the simple laity”—and had informed prayer as its end result. This emphasis, evident throughout Luther’s life and career, led him to develop a catechetical approach that stressed a vital interplay between theology and piety. For Luther, catechetical instruction was intended to communicate more than mere intellectual knowledge or right information about God. He also sought to assist the student with the practice of prayer as a fundamental feature of the Christian life. This emphasis on prayer in the context of Lutheran catechetical instruction is the heart of Luther’s reformation theology.

For Martin Luther, the reformation was about how the church prays. And in this connection, the primary goal of catechesis was to teach believers to pray. Luther sought to instruct parishioners regarding the one to whom they were to pray, to know what to pray, and to know how to pray. In order to attain this goal, he developed a rather unique educational strategy. Both this goal and the strategy used by Luther to reach it are at the theological core of the Lutheran Reformation. Indeed, a, if not the, distinctive feature of the Lutheran Reformation program is its consistent emphasis on reforming the way Christians pray. [William R. Russell, “Luther, Prayer, and the Reformation” in Word & World 22, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 50-51, 53-54]

My conclusion from this is simple: if we truly want to honor the legacy of Martin Luther, let us dedicate ourselves now more than ever to the practice, privilege, and power of prayer!

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‘The Word Preserved From Flesh’: Wendell Berry on the Unbelonging Pastor

As much as I love my theology books, I am also an avid reader of fiction. A while ago I started reading Wendell Berry’s Port William Membership series, beginning with Jayber Crow. Ever since I have been growing in my appreciation for Berry as a writer and a love for the fictional place he has imagined. But Berry’s Port William is more than mere fiction; it is a profound guide to the human soul, human relations, and human communities in inextricable connection to their place. Berry succeeds best in putting into words the inexpressible depths of human experience. Particularly for myself, as others have also attested, spending time in Berry’s Port William is teaching me how to better pastor my community. In a “Christian” culture that adulates book contracts, conference slots, and massive numbers of podcast subscribers, Berry’s stories reveal the beauty and power of ministry that is small, ordinary, daily, and faithful.

Sometimes Berry does this by way of negative example. Consider the following story, taken from his novel A Place on Earth, in which pastor “Brother Preston” reflects on his failed attempt to comfort the Feltner family that is grieving the loss of their beloved husband and son Virgil. Back at the church his thoughts are interrupted by the townwendell_berry1 gravedigger, “Uncle Stanley”. Their encounter provides an ironic commentary on why Brother Preston will never be able to truly minister to his parishoners:

He came away from the Feltner house grieved by the imperfection of his visit. It was not, as he had hoped it would be, a conversation. It was a sermon. This is the history of his life in Port William. The Word, in his speaking it, fails to be made flesh. It is a failure particularized for him in the palm of every work-stiffened hand held out to him at the church door every Sunday morning—the hard dark hand taking his pale unworn one in a gesture of politeness without understanding. He belongs to the governance of those he ministers to without belonging to their knowledge, the bringer of the Word preserved from flesh.

But now, sitting on the hard bench in the chilled odors of stale perfume and of vacancy, he feels that he has come again within the reach of peace. On the back of the bench in front of him, like some cryptic text placed there for his contemplation, are the initials B.C. in deeply cut block letters four inches high. Leaning forward, his finger absently tracing the grooves of the initials, he bows in careful silence while his mind seems to stand in the pulpit above him, praying as always: “Our gracious and loving Heavenly Father, we are come into Thy Presence today with our burdens, our troubles, our sorrows.”

The afternoon goes on, and he continues to sit there, his mind coming slowly to rest. He leans back, his hands folded and idle in his lap. Showers come and pass over without his hearing them. The outside door clatters and slams, and footsteps tramp in. The vestibule door is bumped open, and Uncle Stanley appears at the head of the aisle. In one arm he carries a load of kindling, in the other hand a gallon bucket of corncobs soaking in coal oil. Loaded as he is, Uncle Stanley manages a whole chorus of gestures which greet and exclaim and apologize. Peeping over his load, waving the bucket of cobs, he shuffles down the aisle, his walking cane, hooked into his hip pocket, trailing on the floor behind him like a tail. “Go right on, Preacher,” he yells. “Go right ahead. Don’t mind me. Keep right on a talking to Him. I know you got it to do. Byjuckers, if you can squeeze it in anywhere, you can tell Him about me.”

He drops the wood with a racking crash down against a leg of the stove. He opens the fire door and lays in cobs and kindling, and douses in coal oil from the bucket. He tosses in a lighted match, the fire ignites, and the crackling of the flames is immediate and steady. In all this he makes a large avoidance of looking at Brother Preston or speaking to him, leaving him to his prayers. He goes out, and returns carrying two buckets of coal which he places beside the stove. He adds more kindling to the fire, throws in a few lumps of coal, and goes to the nearest bench and sits down, still wearing his hat. He has gone about his work, and now sits and rests, with utter familiarity toward the place. His attitude intimates that he is a fire builder by profession, the best in the trade, and that his skill and responsibility require a certain indifference to all other considerations. A large chew of tobacco is actively at work in his jaw.

Not wanting to appear unfriendly, Brother Preston comes back and sits near the old man—trusting that, by keeping a distance of four or five feet between them, he can hold the conversation to an exchange of formalities and then leave in a few minutes. But he is exactly as much mistaken as he was afraid he would be. Uncle Stanley gets up and spits into the stove, and then sits down next to him and claps a hand down onto his knee. “Yessir! By grab, last thing I’d want to do is break in on a fellow’s praying. I reckon there’s plenty of need for it around here. I reckon I ought to know that. But I had to get that fire to going for the prayer meeting tonight. Take the damp outen this air.” He laughs knowingly, slapping the preacher’s knee again. “Take their mind off of their old bones while you say your say to ’em. We all got our calling. You got yours and I got mine. And we go about ’em and get along. Ain’t that right, Preacher?” “That is so, Mr. Gibbs,” Brother Preston says.[1]

When I first read this passage, I was completely undone. I have tried to minister like Brother Preston more times than I care to admit. I have substituted busyness in my study for connecting with people in my community. I have viewed unplanned encounters and conversations as interruptions rather than opportunities. I have tracked progress in terms of measurable accomplishments instead of the more intangible work of the heart. And I have gauged success more on the basis of numbers of programs and tight schedules than on the inefficiency of being generous with my time. In a phrase, I have often tried to be “a bringer of the Word preserved from flesh”.

But thankfully there is always grace and mercy for the chief of sinners. I have a long way yet to go, but through the Berry’s stories of the Port William membership, I am slowly learning the art of being a pastor who truly knows, loves, and belongs to his people and place. Thank you Wendell Berry. I look forward to the many more visits to Port William that I will make in the days to come.

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[1] Wendell Berry. A Place on Earth (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2001), Kindle Locations 1280-1305.

Sent to Serve: The Bearing of Christ’s Humanity on a Theology of the Church’s Mission (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Picking up where I left off in considering a theology of mission with reference to T.F. Torrance, in this post I would like to discuss some of the implications of taking Christ’s own incarnate mission — as testified and exemplified by the apostles — as the starting point (or more precisely, as the foundational level of theological reflection stemming from our evangelical encounter with the gospel). Previously we arrived at the conclusion that:

All order in the Christian Church is a participation in His obedient Humanity—whether that order be an ordering of its daily life, daily worship, or daily fellowship, or daily mission. The whole of the Church’s life is ordered through participation in the ordered life of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, the Head of the New Creation.[1]

Moving on from there, T.F. Torrance draws out the significance of this point:

The form which this re-ordering in Jesus Christ takes is the form of a Servant. It was through His obedience within our disobedient humanity that He restored us to order and peace in God…. Thus as Jesus was obedient in the Father, who sent Him to fulfil His Will, so the Church is ordered in its obedience to Christ who sent it to fulfil Hise303e2027514497aaa0603a129a3eb42_XL Will. The obedience of the Church to Christ is not simply an imitation of His obedience but a fulfilling of God’s Will through participation in Christ’s obedience….

The Church shares in that through the Spirit, so that its life is ordered through the Communion of the Spirit. But the Church that shares in that order of the new Creation is the Church that is sent by Christ out into history, to live its life in the physical and temporal existence that awaits redemption in the second advent of Christ. The Church in the midst of the old creation and all its disorder shares in the new creation and its new order. By sheer participation in the empirical life of this fallen world which comes under the divine judgment, and therefore the divine law, the Church participates in worldly forms and laws and cannot escape from them. It is sent to have its mission right there under law, but under law to share in the new order in-the-law to Christ through the Spirit….

Another way of putting that is to say that all order in the historical Church is essentially eschatological. By “eschatological” here two things are meant: (a) that order carries within it the tension between the new and the old; and (b) the tension between the present (including the past) and the future. True order in the Church of Christ is order that points above and beyond its historical forms to its new order in the risen Christ, and points beyond its present forms to the future manifestation of its order in the new creation. All order in the Church is thus ambivalent and provisional: it is order that visibly reflects its life hid with Christ in God, and order that exercises a provisional service in time, until Christ comes again….

All of this is wonderfully enshrined in the Lord’s Supper. “This do in remembrance of Me. As often as ye do this, ye do proclaim the Lord’s death till He come.” In the Supper the Church’s life and ministry is so ordered that it is bound to the historical Jesus, to His death on the Cross, but at that very point in time the Church is given to have communion with the risen and ascended Lord and to share in His New Humanity, and from the Supper it is sent out to proclaim that until He comes again….

As often as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we proclaim His death till He come, we receive anew His death and resurrection into the existence of the Church, and so bear about the dying of the Lord Jesus in the body of the Church that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in the that body. Through the Eucharist, therefore, death worketh in the Church and its members and orders. If through the Eucharist the Spirit of Christ is in the Church, then its “body” is dead, mortified by the death of Christ… It is only when through the eucharistic enactment the judgment inherent in the death of Christ is allowed to break up the hardened forms of the Church’s liturgy, into which eschatology is continually being transmuted, that the Church can truly serve the Lord it worships, and at the same time hold out life to the world.[2]

These are densely-packed paragraphs, but they can be helpfully summarized in the single statement that the church’s mission, re-ordered in Christ, is basically and essentially that of “service”. The church, sent out into the world by Christ, is called fundamentally to take the form of a servant — of the Suffering Servant, in fact — in humility, obedience, and suffering witness. The church cannot exalt in its glory, it cannot will to power as a lord, and it cannot claim to have arrived at perfection and so point people to itself. The entirety of its life and mission must be cruciform, as even the apostles lived and labored as “the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).

The reasons for this are many. First, the church does not send itself on mission, rather it is sent by its Lord Jesus Christ. This means it must always adopt a posture of obedient submission. Second, the Lord who sends his church on mission is the invisible Lord in virtue of his ascension, by means of which he directs his church back to his historical life as the place where he meets it and from which he sends it out. Inasmuch as he conducted his historical existence as the Suffering Servant rather than as the Exalted King, the church cannot conduct its own existence in any other way.

Third, the very fact that the church which is sent on mission into the passing form of this world while at the same time sharing in the perfected humanity of the new creation in Christ means that it finds itself in an irreducible eschatological tension. On the one hand, the church has been given to taste the life and power of the age to come, yet on the other hand its field of mission is the present evil age in whose forms it must continue to exist. Its life is hid with Christ in God, yet its life is hid and is yet to be fully revealed. For this reason, the church cannot at present claim to possess the fullness of its future glory, nor can it claim the authority to reign upon the earth that it will one day exercise. Thus, the church is fundamentally a servant, and that of the future in the midst of the present.

Finally, the sacraments given to the church testify to its exclusively servant nature. The Eucharist especially makes this clear, as the church is continually called to the Lord’s table where it partakes of Christ in the form of his broken body and shed blood. The reality of baptism attests that its incorporation into Christ is a once-for-all event, and thus the Eucharist is not repeated for this purpose. Rather, it is repeated “until the Lord comes”, for as long as its existence is tied up with the passing and sinful forms of this world, it must continually come under the judgment of the cross and crucify the old man so as to put on the new. It is only as a repentant church that it is sent out on mission, and thus its mission can only ever take the form of an “unworthy servant” (Luke 17:10).

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 2 (London: Lutterworth, 1960), 16.

[2] Ibid., 16-18, 26, 197-198.

A Mouth Full of Fire: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Nature of True Preaching

What is preaching? That is the question! I remember the first time someone asked me to explain the difference between teaching the Bible and preaching the Bible. I don’t exactly recall what I said, but I know that it was a fumble at best! Since that time, I have been reflecting now and again on what it is that distinguishes preaching from mere teaching. In my opinion, Martyn Lloyd-Jones hit the proverbial nail on the head when he stated in his famous Preaching and Preachers lectures:

What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason! Are these contradictions? Of course they are not. Reason concerning this Truth ought to be mightily eloquent, as you see it in the case of the Apostle Paul and others. It is theology on fire. And a 40232233852-Media-Gratiae-Lloyd-Jones-Logic-on-fire-DVDtheology which does not take fire, I maintain, is a defective theology; or at least the man’s understanding of it is defective.

Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire. A true understanding and experience of the Truth must lead to this. I say again that a man who can speak about these things dispassionately has no right whatsoever to be in a pulpit; and should never be allowed to enter one.

What is the chief end of preaching? I like to think it is this. It is to give men and women a sense of God and His presence. As I have said already, during this last year I have been ill, and so have had the opportunity, and the privilege, of listening to others, instead of preaching myself.

As I have listened in physical weakness this is the thing I have looked for and longed for and desired. I can forgive a man for a bad sermon, I can forgive the preacher almost anything if he gives me a sense of God, if he gives me something for my soul, if he gives me the sense that, though he is inadequate himself, he is handling something which is very great and very glorious, if he gives me some dim glimpse of the majesty and the glory of God, the love of Christ my Saviour, and the magnificence of the Gospel. If he does that I am his debtor, and I am profoundly grateful to him.

Preaching is the most amazing, and the most thrilling activity that one can ever be engaged in, because of all that it holds out for all of us in the present, and because of the glorious endless possibilities in an eternal future.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), Kindle Edition, 110-111.