Gazing Wrongly at The Right Thing

More than once I have heard Lutherans distinguish themselves from Reformed Christians by saying that Calvinism is “God-centered” while Lutheranism is “Christ-centered”. For quite a long time I had no idea what that could possibly mean. Isn’t Jesus Christ God in the flesh? Would it not therefore be synonymous to say either “God-centered” or “Christ-centered”? Well, no, not really. Before I move on I do wish to say that I believe that both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions are, when understood and practiced properly, Christ centered. But it is possible to become Patricentric in our thinking as Christians, and that is a thing we ought to avoid at all cost.

I recently attended a church with my wife and one of our children which is not our usual church. The pastor, whom I have met before and like personally, gave a sermon in which he was teaching on some of the attributes of God. God is good, holy, just, all-knowing, all-powerful, and he is both transcendent and immanent. This is all true, of course, and fine as far as it goes.

But therein, lies the rub. The pastor’s point seemed to be that since God possesses all of these wonderful qualities we should praise God and glorify him for being these things. This is also true as far as it goes; but here is where the thing fell short, and where it failed to be focused on Christ and rather was focused on God The Father. God’s transcendence is that thing wherein he is not accessible to us. He is beyond us and outside of us and his ways are so far above our ways that the gap in between can be described as being akin to the spacial gap between the heavens and the earth (Isaiah 55:9). God’s immanence is that attribute in which he is right here. But the wonderful thing that this pastor failed to do was point out how God’s transcendence and immanence are reconciled in Christ.

You see the real problem with the sermon was not in what was said, but rather in what was not said. The sermon pointed our eyes to God the Father and we are told in scripture, John 14:9, that whoever has seen Jesus has seen the Father. God wishes to be known through Christ. God’s disposition toward sinners is to be known through Christ. God’s goodness, justice, holiness, wrath, mercy, transcendence, immanence, sovereignty, and all other attributes he has revealed to us are to be seen through the lens of Christ, specifically Christ on the Cross and resurrected victoriously over sin, death, and the devil for his people.

This is one of the main lessons to learn from the reformers, whether their theological address is Geneva or Wittenberg. We are not to go looking for what God has not revealed to us. The reformation cry of “sola scriptura” is the most succinct way of stating that. We are not to attempt to see God through any other lens, nor from any other angle than that of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. Do not gaze wrongly at the right thing. Yes, look to God. Pursue God. Praise God, etc…But do so through the one who said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me”. Remember Philip’s question and the Lord’s response: Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Let’s take God at his word and seek him through the means by which he may be found, worshiped, studied, exalted, exulted in, and ultimately be both glorified and humble savior, both transcendent and immanent. Be like the Greeks who came to Philip. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Amen.

15 thoughts on “Gazing Wrongly at The Right Thing

  1. It seems to me that you have assumed the sermon focused on God the Father, rather than the whole Godhead. Now, you were there, and I wasn’t, but there is nothing in your reporting the content of the sermon that indicated that it was only about the Father.

    Therefore, I think you owe it to your friend to not assume that he was excluding Christ at all.

    Further, your final comments hint at serious error. Where do I learn about Christ, or the Father, or the Godhead, but in the Word. Your comments suggest some sort of unmediated confrontation with the divine, such as the radical form of pietism seeks.

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  2. It is interesting that Roy should have commented as he did, because on my thoughts as I read through the article was, “Why are you assuming that ‘God’ always refers to ‘the Father’ and not ‘the Godhead’?” Indeed, when speaking about the attributes of God, I think the safest assumption is that “Godhead” should be inferred, even when it is not explicitly stated. We cannot speak at all of omnipresence – and only marginally of transcendence – about the human Jesus, while immanence, as the article states, is a quality best understood through Jesus – AND the Holy Spirit, who is conspicuously absent from the entire post. It is unfortunate that “God” is used in preaching in such an ambiguous way that we can never be sure whether “Father” or “Godhead” is intended,

    My other concern would be that the article either ignores or minimizes by lack of mention the fact that the revelation of God was progressive. It would not be accurate to say that we could come to NO understanding of God before the advent of Jesus Christ. It would be true to say that we could not FULLY understand either the Father OR the Godhead UNTIL Jesus Christ, but many of His attributes and much about His character are clear from the Law and the Prophets. The modern writers who identify themselves as “red-letter Christians” miss the mark in some areas because they have not truly appreciated this point. The holiness and righteousness of God can only be rightly understood by seeing both in their proper contexts in both the old and new covenants. If we tried to develop a systematic theology from just the New Testament, Christianity would be a strange religion indeed.

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  3. Roy said: “It seems to me that you have assumed the sermon focused on God the Father, rather than the whole Godhead. Now, you were there, and I wasn’t, but there is nothing in your reporting the content of the sermon that indicated that it was only about the Father.

    Therefore, I think you owe it to your friend to not assume that he was excluding Christ at all.

    Further, your final comments hint at serious error. Where do I learn about Christ, or the Father, or the Godhead, but in the Word. Your comments suggest some sort of unmediated confrontation with the divine, such as the radical form of pietism seeks.”

    You are right, Roy, you weren’t there. The way I know Christ was excluded is because he was not mentioned. As to my final comment, it should be read in context with the rest of the article. I in no way suggested seeking “unmediated confrontation with the divine” as you say. Note my comments about sola scriptura and not going beyond what has been revealed in the immediately preceding paragraph. Also note my statement “Let’s take God at his word and seek him through the means by which he may be found”. Clearly I realize, and stated, that we are to approach God through means, as he has ordained. So as far as your charge of pietism, my comments in no way suggest such a thing. In fact, the sermon in question would more properly be charged with that; because God’s immanence and nearness was spoken of, but never the God-man through whom he is actually immanent and near.

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  4. Jeff said: “It is interesting that Roy should have commented as he did, because on my thoughts as I read through the article was, “Why are you assuming that ‘God’ always refers to ‘the Father’ and not ‘the Godhead’?” Indeed, when speaking about the attributes of God, I think the safest assumption is that “Godhead” should be inferred, even when it is not explicitly stated. We cannot speak at all of omnipresence – and only marginally of transcendence – about the human Jesus, while immanence, as the article states, is a quality best understood through Jesus – AND the Holy Spirit, who is conspicuously absent from the entire post. It is unfortunate that “God” is used in preaching in such an ambiguous way that we can never be sure whether “Father” or “Godhead” is intended,”

    I didn’t assume anything. I was there and Christ was not mentioned during the sermon. The fact is that God wishes to be known through Christ. The scripture is clear on that.

    “My other concern would be that the article either ignores or minimizes by lack of mention the fact that the revelation of God was progressive. It would not be accurate to say that we could come to NO understanding of God before the advent of Jesus Christ. It would be true to say that we could not FULLY understand either the Father OR the Godhead UNTIL Jesus Christ, but many of His attributes and much about His character are clear from the Law and the Prophets. The modern writers who identify themselves as “red-letter Christians” miss the mark in some areas because they have not truly appreciated this point. The holiness and righteousness of God can only be rightly understood by seeing both in their proper contexts in both the old and new covenants. If we tried to develop a systematic theology from just the New Testament, Christianity would be a strange religion indeed.”

    I realize that revelation was progressive and I never even suggested that we could know nothing of God without Jesus. All I said was that we are to see what we know of God through Jesus. Obviously that wasn’t the case in the OT. I am not a “red letter Christian” nor do I believe it would be good to leave aside the OT. You and Roy seem to have missed the point of the article altogether, I will try to be more clear in the future.

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  5. I think one of the things that Andrew is getting at is something I’ve seen in other discussions with Lutherans: it is a distinctive Lutheran emphasis that, at the end of a chain of progressive divine Revelation, we see Christ alone (Hebrews 1). But even this Son, “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature”, we only know through, as Lutherans say, “word and sacrament”.

    I view this particular Lutheran emphasis as a natural extension of Luther’s own personal struggles. Luther started off in a monastery, working with what he saw as a semi-Pelagian emphasis on “doing what is in you”, as with the Medieval expression “quod in se est” — to do “what is in them”, or “doing their best”, from which we almost get the modern saying, “God helps those who help themselves”.

    Luther responded mightily against this notion. In doing so, he personally looked to “Christ alone”. And a lot of Lutheran theology, it seems to me, is an attempt on Luther’s part to help people find their way out of the Medieval mindset, to seek their salvation in “Christ alone”. To understand that the only kind of righteousness that was available to them was an alien righteousness, “the righteousness of God”, which appears only in the death and resurrection of Christ.

    Reformed theology steps back and seeks to understand a broader picture. We look for the “how” and “why” portions of God’s story of salvation. We do need to look to the Old Testament in a lot of this. On the other hand, the Lutheran theologian enmeshes himself into the story. Lutherans seem to place themselves directly into God’s plan, and they discover what they may from the inside. By encountering Christ [as I’ve heard it through a Lutheran seminary lecture] “through prayer, meditation, and temptation. All three revolved around faithful attention to God’s word. The order of these is significant. The study of theology is a cycle: prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit, meditation on God’s word, and then spiritual attack. Thus it is not self-development, but a process of reception.”

    This is a reflection of Luther’s own struggles to understand God, and what God is up to in the world.

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  6. To throw in my two cents (unsolicited, of course): Andrew’s post is set in the context of preaching, not systematic theology. Even Lutheran dogmaticians such as Pieper have extended treatments of God’s attributes. Preaching, however, is not a theological lecture. The apostolic pattern for preaching is to “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). As Paul said in Col 1:28, “Him [i.e., Christ] we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ.” The risen Jesus directed His apostolic church to preach “repentance and remission of sins… in His name to all nations” (Lk 24:47). Christian preachers should follow this apostolic pattern – Christ-centered, Law and Gospel preaching, with imperatives grounded in the grace of the Gospel (e.g., Rom 12:1: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God”, etc.). To preach the attributes of God apart from the God-man, crucified for our sins and raised from the dead, is an inadequate “Christian” sermon.

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  7. Good clarification, Tony. Unfortunately, in the world of blogging, perspectives are very important. The writer writes from a plateau of “omniscience” about some points of which the reader is totally unaware (here, the sermon used as the starting point of the reflection. The reader sits in a valley without that information and fills in the gaps using assumptions of his own.. Looks like this is an example of that difference in perspective making all the difference. I shall withdraw my complaints on the age-old basis so often applied to anecdotes which do not generate laughter among the hearers: “I guess you had to be there…”

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  8. I haven’t read the comments (no time, sorry guys), but likewise I sometimes had arrived at “You see the real problem with the sermon was not in what was said, but rather in what was not said” even with my own church. I recall going through a phase in which I kept a little scorecard with two categories: Law / Gospel. If there were too many checks in the law column, I left with a “gotcha” feeling. If Christ and the Gospel weren’t mentioned “enough”… well, let’s just say I left with a critical spirit.

    Here’s how I worked it out: Since I attend the church regularly, I have to take my church’s teaching as a whole into account. The emphasis is indeed on Christ, but sometimes it’s assumed in a sermon. Then of course, there’s teaching on the whole council of God, including the fact that sometimes the congregation needs to hear law. Before Lutherans criticize this, I can produce sermons from Luther in which the emphasis is either on law or moral behavior. One of my pastors is a brilliant exegete of the Old Testament. He’d spend the majority of the sermon establishing the context, then he would make application, including exhortations to godly living, and Christ as fulfillment of the Old Testament. If one were to do a breakdown, they’d say, “The emphasis wasn’t on Christ!”… but this misses the richness of this man’s teaching and preaching ability.

    I try to keep this in mind even when I visit churches. I certainly can do the “gotcha” thing in a church in which I’m not familiar with their overall teaching… in fact, I’ve done this. In order to do the “gotcha” fairly, I’d have to visit the church for an extended period of time to be fair.

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    1. Hi James, I appreciate your comments here. I’ve not really encountered this whole question in the two Reformed churches I attended — (sermons not being “Christ-centered” enough). The pastors of these churches are both exceptional communicators, and in both cases, I’ve never walked out of a service or sermon with the thought that “something was lacking”.

      That is completely a reversal from my experience as a Roman Catholic. Near the end of my time there, literally everything about the place made me feel creepy — homilies, statues, music, you name it.

      That’s one reason why I’m so grateful for the Reformation, and why I think it’s important for especially the groups that came out of the Magisterial Reformation to understand each other.

      Even though someone may not agree with what Andrew was saying above, he does point out a distinctive among conservative Lutherans, the impulse to be Christ-focused and Christ-honoring in everything they do. I think that’s a good thing. And I think the more that we have the opportunity to talk about these kinds of distinctives, the better we’ll all understand each other.

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  9. James,
    Thank you for your comment. Let me clarify a couple of things and see if we aren’t closer to being on the same page than it seems. First, I am in complete agreement that one should not go to a church keeping score and trying to find “gotcha” moments in the service. One cannot judge a sermon by simply counting how many times the pastor makes a law statement versus a gospel statement. You are correct. Second, I don’t have a problem with a sermon being preached that is a “law” sermon. Indeed, a preacher could do precious little else with the text of Exodus 20 (all of that being said, the law is dangerous without the gospel). There really should be elements of both in the average Sunday sermon; but there is no recipe that dictates what percentage of a sermon needs to be one or the other. What is more critical is how they are presented and how the relationship between the two is preached. I would be surprised to find that we disagree on that.

    What I was getting at, and perhaps was not clear enough about, is that when a preacher is trying to present God to us and make us understand Him as he relates to us today, Christ MUST be the focal point because He is the fullest revelation of God to man, and the one through whom the Father wishes to be known. The preacher in question said much about God’s immanence, for example. And we were encouraged to see God as both transcendent and immanent; but Christ was not held forth as the way in which God’s immanence is revealed. In any sermon this side of Calvary that aims to say “this is what God is like” Christ needs to be the focal point. When I hear such a sermon in which Christ doesn’t even get an honorable mention, I am troubled. In fact as an addendum, the entire service was pretty well bereft of references to Christ. The songs were mostly about what we were doing “I’m going to worship, be faithful, glorify God, etc…” which is fine in and of itself. But there was just no hint of “It is finished” anywhere.

    I hope that clears things up somewhat.

    Andrew

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  10. Thanks, Andrew! Perhaps it was the reading and not the writing that left me with the false impression – communication being both what is said AND what is heard. In my first reading, I felt that the emphasis was doctrinal, not homiletical. Clearly now, that was not the case. And having said that, thanks for a well-thought out piece. I will try to read less “critically” in the future.

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  11. Jeff, please fell free to read critically. All I ask is that you try and put the best construction on things and ask rather than accuse. That being said, I was too snippy in my responses to you and Roy. I will be more patient and amiable in the future. Thanks for your input.

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  12. “Let me clarify a couple of things and see if we aren’t closer to being on the same page than it seems.”

    “What I was getting at, and perhaps was not clear enough about”

    Hi Andrew- Yes, we’re on the same page, and yes you were clear. I likewise strongly hold “Christ MUST be the focal point because He is the fullest revelation of God to man” etc. in regard to the focal point of those men who become pastors. Your comments on spot on. It would be like going to a doctor for an important medical issue, and having that doctor explain to us what the field of medicine is about, rather than treating the medical issue in question.

    I was simply expressing how I worked through similar situations in my own walk with Christ (“Here’s how I worked it out…”) with the way I treat ministers of the Gospel, particularly those whose ministry I don’t sit under regularly. Maybe others here have a deeper ability to be discerning and loving in evaluating ministers. I’ve had to learn both, and still am learning both.

    James

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