"When God brings to life, he does so by killing;
when he justifies, he does so by accusing us; when he brings us into heaven, he does so by leading us to hell."
-- Blessed Dr. Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will,
(WA 18, 633)
Nota Bene: Before I begin my meanderings in earnest, I must credit Pr. Jeff Hemmer, whom I had the pleasure of meeting at a conference we both attended in Sussex, WI, last June. Our conversation was brief, but it, and he, made an impression on me. "Sanctification," I remember him saying, "is the process of learning to believe the truth of your justification in Christ. The Christian is like a bride who cannot believe that her husband loves her as she is, who does not, cannot believe him when he tells her, 'you are beautiful.'" Is sanctification more than this? Certainly. This is not a full exposition of doctrine (with that said, please let me know if my paraphrase is off, Pr. Hemmer). But I think it gets very near to the heart of what sanctification is, as we must remember that when Christ, the Heavenly Bridegroom, says to His Church -- and equally to each member therein -- "you are beautiful," His living and active Word effects that which it describes.
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I find the above excerpt from Luther's De Servo Arbitrio to be especially compelling, and a fair epitome of the paradoxy which is so central to Lutheran orthodoxy (not in any idiosyncratic way, but rather, I would submit, correctly): it is in the midst of and throughout "the dark night of the soul" that God applies His sanctifying mercy and grace to us, though this fact is often recognized only in retrospect.
At least in my experience, which is limited, brief (if only because I am young), and no sure guide, all that one knows while in the dark night of the soul is that it feels like death. To put it bluntly, one who is suffering from the worst kind of acute depression (call it what you will), which is leavened in no small way with spiritual agony -- such a one feels as though his days are numbered. He assesses the way he feels, and concludes quite reasonably that there is no way that such a wretched, pervasive feeling could be endured indefinitely: it will either kill him, or drive him to suicide. This seems to him to be almost a matter of physics; indeed, for depression has a certain kind of gravity all its own.
Such a one feels as though he has been hurled into the depths of the sea with a millstone tied around his neck as punishment for his many sins, especially those by which his guilt has been multiplied, those sins of which Donne wrote that he had "won / Others to sin, and made my sin their door..." (John Donne, A Hymn to God the Father, ll.7-8). Who could survive such a drowning? No one! Indeed, no one survives drowning: it isn't properly a drowning until one has, well...drowned.
"Some mere chastening, this!" one is tempted to cry out in despair and indignation. "I am dying! Why have you forsaken me, God? I thought you loved me."
This thought, too, the devil will seize upon, for all of a sudden the possibility that God does not love you begins to make sense; it starts to evolve from a possibility to a likelihood, and then -- ponderously, horrifyingly, inexorably -- this likelihood begins to ossify into a fact (cf. Calvinism). Indeed, this is an entirely sensible, utterly logical thought, because, after all, you are not worthy of His love! You might as well hasten the process, then.
The question then arises, is this Baptism, or is it drowning? Am I going to surface, or am I going to sink and go down to Sheol?
The answer, is, I think, "yes," on all counts: it is Baptism, it is drowning, you are going to surface, but you are going to sink first. You are going to go down to Sheol, which is also called Hell. But you are not going to stay, for all the while you have been in the strong grip of the God-Man: you have been taking passage in the very wounds of Christ. He rose; so also will you. You did rise with Him, you are rising, you will rise. Your election is secure in Him. Believe it.
Because when God brings to life, he does so by killing;
when he justifies, he does so by accusing us; when he brings us into heaven, he does so by leading us to hell.Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
(I know that it's technically plagiarism if you don't attribute the quotations you use, but I wanted to illustrate how seamlessly these thoughts go together. Besides, this is the blogosphere...
...but, just to be on the level, that first bit is the original Luther quotation, and the last bit is Romans 6.3-4.)
It is in the various crucibles of this life, wherein "the devil, the world, and our flesh" are bent on destroying our faith and flinging us into apostasy, that the very dross of "false belief, despair and other great shame and vice" are burned out of us. Before Our Father we stand holy and righteous on account of the finished work of Jesus Christ, our life hidden with Him in the triune God, as unbelievable as that might seem.
So believe Him when he says, "Your sins are forgiven." Believe Him when He says, "Today you will be with Me in Paradise." Believe Him when He says, "It is finished."
That is why this Friday is good.
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East Coker, IV;
from The Four Quartets
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer's art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam's curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood-
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.