A Difference in Direction

I talked last week about one way in which we can change how we approach our dialogue with other denominations. A more comprehensive understanding of the sacraments allows us to see different ways in which the sacraments are working and that all of them fall under the larger umbrella of each sacrament. Since we Lutherans tend to focus rather narrowly on the motif of forgiveness, we also tend to miss much of what else is going on.

That said, Lutherans continue to meditate on Luther’s explanation of our relationship with God. There is much about the sacraments and everything else in our relationship with God that we play an active role in. We worship and praise. We offer prayers, both for ourselves and for those around us. We honor Him in word and deed by both treating Him as God and by sharing His love with others. We participate in all of this activity and much of that is found in the sacraments in one way or another. However, none of that begins with us.

Luther remarks in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Before you can do anything for God, you have to first know He’s even there. Our sinful state refuses to acknowledge any God but ourselves. Without the Spirit’s intervention to kindle faith in our hearts, we are lost. Jesus says, “No one is good except God alone.” St. Paul says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We have nothing with which to reach God and no desire to do so. If we are to have anything beyond our own, self-imposed prison, God must reach down and pull us up.

One of the most potent themes to reinforce this idea is that of adoption. St. Paul works with this theme in a few places. Galatians 3-4 is one such place where he unpacks the significance of this idea and he explicitly ties baptism into this process. We all used to be orphans, but through the grace of God we have been adopted by Him and brought into His family. We didn’t pay for this service, for we had nothing at all to offer. If He had not chosen to make us His own, we would all still be lost with no recourse to change the outcome.

It’s a little hard to swallow how completely lost and destitute we are. It sounds as though we should have some part to play in that initial work of our salvation. Thankfully, God doesn’t just give us one example. The adoption motif didn’t start with St. Paul. This baptismal idea can be traced back at least as far as Abraham, who was told by God to circumcise all of his male children on their eighth day of life. I won’t get into the significance of the eighth day here. That’s an entirely other topic. Nevertheless, an eight year old child is explicitly made a child of God and bound to the promise He made to Abraham through this rite. This rite asks nothing of the child. In fact, the child is an entirely passive (and probably unwilling!) recipient of the rite. The child has not intellectual understanding of what is going on. The child offers nothing to the process. The only awareness is of pain and discomfort. And yet, this rite is the outward declaration of what God has done and continues to do for this child and for the whole people of Israel.

God makes that same promise through baptism in the church today. We offer nothing, for we have nothing. Baptism may not carry the physical pain circumcision does, but it still brings a radical, and rather uncomfortable, change. We are claimed by God and brought into His family, which necessarily puts us at odds with the world around us. Still, once we are a part of His family and we have received His promised gifts through Word and Sacrament, now we have something to offer. We are enabled to give back to Him what He has given us and we have that same gift to offer to those around us. The sacraments cannot work in any other way. “The last shall be first,” as Jesus says. Only those who come to Him knowing they have nothing we suddenly find they have everything.

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