I tweeted yesterday something to the effect that all true repentance begins by being struck down by the fact of the prodigal son’s confession: I’m not worthy to be called your son. This really is the heart of my concern for how we talk about salvation in relation to the sacraments, pastoral theology, covenant theology, federal vision, etc.
The short hand of this is: I want to be able to say everything that the Bible says. A longer version is that pastorally, we want to see people gripped by the grace of God and transformed by that grace. I know there are all kinds of cliches and overused mantras in every tradition, but I just mean that we want to know God and walk with Him together. But from Genesis to Revelation, one of the fundamental obstacles to walking with God is idolatry. And it is idolatry that arises in the heart, in individuals who prize their own understanding, their own wisdom, their own instincts, their own pleasure and apparent security over the Word of God, over and in place of Jesus.
This means that one of man’s most basic problems is that we don’t think we’re as bad as we are. We’re “pretty bad” “sort of bad” maybe “kind of bad,” but one of the most offensive aspects of the Gospel, the Good News, is that people apart from the grace of God are sick, disgusting creatures. Our hearts are infested with the foul maggots of lust and lies. Paul says we were dead in our sins and trespasses. Apart from Jesus commanding us to rise up and walk, we are corpses, complete with the stench of death.
And here’s the deal: Jesus calls the dead to life. He raises the dead by the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. He washes us clean with His blood, and His Spirit comes and dwells inside of us and unites us to God and His people so that together we can begin again to make this world a glorious place, a place of beauty and wonder. That’s what God actually does, but in real time, in the trenches of life, Jesus tells us that different people will respond differently to His words. Some don’t get it at all and the word bounces off their forehead like a ping-pong ball. Others spring up for a time, but they quickly wilt and fade because it’s hard to follow Jesus, and they’d rather get rich and have easy sex than be persecuted for following an invisible King. But still others receive the word with joy, their roots go down deep, and they produce piles of fruit.
Now part of the glory of God’s grace is that while the parable of the sower can be read as a snap shot of certain kinds of people throughout history (or even Jesus’ own contemporaries), it can also be read as different points in particular people’s lives. So maybe at one point the word comes, and you or your family are just hard packed clay. But later, through various circumstances, you’re more open and maybe you even go to church and get baptized or start listening to sermons online, but you kind of forget about the hard things in your life and it’s easy to slip right back into old habits. Satan snatches the seed from your heart. The cares of the world snuff out the light. But then still later the word comes again with power, but this time the soil of your life has been plowed for planting by the Spirit. Now even if you think my exegesis of the parable is shaky, maybe I’ve been smoking too much Eusebius you say, — you can hardly deny the fact that this is in fact what happens in many peoples’ lives.
So in the trenches of life, we can’t see peoples’ hearts. We can’t always tell where they’re at. But our job is to preach the gospel. And the gospel is that every human heart is a rock hard, barren land completely unreceptive to the word of God. But we are told that it is the preaching of the gospel that Jesus uses to soften hearts. Now this seems crazy and backwards. Hard hearts are completely unreceptive to the word of God, and so we proclaim the word of God to soften the hard hearts. That it? Yep. But I thought you said the hearts would reject the word. Yep, that too. And the word can also be used to make their hearts receptive? Yep, that three.
Ezekiel is told to preach to dry bones. Paul says we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Isaiah is told to preach until Israel fills up all the short buses and the whole place is one big handicap convention, and Jesus takes up that same mantle in the gospels. But while there are immediate historical aims which may include temporal judgment (bad guys destroying them), the ultimate end is the salvation of Israel. The ultimate end is to raise the dead, give sight to the blind, open the ears of the deaf, and unloose the tongue of the dumb. But the intermediate step in getting there (salvation) is preaching people into the grave: preaching their eyes blind, their ears deaf, their tongues completely tied.
The gospel is the efficacious announcement of death first. It’s efficacious because it actually performs what it announces. It is an authoritative announcement like, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” The evangelist always begins with the authoritative announcement, “You are dead.” And sometimes the dead people do nothing because they are dead, sometimes they convulse a bit like some kind of frankenmummy before going back into rot mode, and sometimes, they sit up and suck in mouthfuls of clean, fresh air and begin to live.
Now the Bible clearly and repeatedly associates this new life with particular rituals in the life of the Church. Paul says that the Romans were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As many as have been baptized have put on Christ. Baptism is the washing away of sins and the laver of regeneration. Peter says that baptism now saves, not because you got a little dirt off your skin, but because it proclaims to you and to God a clean conscience because Jesus died and rose again.
And so this means that the evangelization of many in America, is the evangelization of “Christians” — those who permanently bear the name of Christ, tattooed on them at baptism. When baptized frat boys serially seduce sorority girls, we proclaim to them the same Jesus whose name they bear. When baptized husbands are given over to perpetually calling their wives filthy names and cursing them and yelling in anger at them, we preach the Jesus who claimed them. When someone was baptized as an infant and never remembers going to church, doesn’t know much of anything about Jesus, we introduce them to the Jesus who has died for them. But this always, always means telling these same sorts of people that they are dead, evil, wicked, lost sons of the devil. They are open tombs and graves, and their mouths are full of cursing and deceit. Their lives are lying about their baptisms. Their baptism means death, and so the gospel is the proclamation of death. We preach and counsel people into the grave. And their greatest problem and deepest need is that they don’t believe it. They don’t believe they are dead. They don’t believe they are rotting corpses. And this is perhaps hardest with people inside the church, who live in respectable, middle class America, who know their catechisms and have memorized the liturgy.
But some are concerned that this will only lead to doubts, only lead to fear, only lead to insecurity and lack of assurance or hopelessness, but I’m not buying it. And that’s because this is no ordinary grave we preach them into. This is no ordinary darkness we proclaim. We preach the darkness that fell over the world at the death of the crucified Lamb of God. We preach the grave of the only innocent man in the history of the world. We insist that this is what their baptism means, but because we know our own hearts and because we know the deceitfulness of the flesh, we insist that it is not enough to merely have some kind of superficial ascent to this “theology.” We insist that their own foul stench fill their nostrils, their own rebellion kick them in the gut. Because only when people see that they are actually dead can they begin to live, only when they come to grips with their rebellion can they be forgiven, only when they realize that they are not worthy to be called sons will their Father receive them home. This is because the only way to live is to die. The only way to find your life is to lose it.
This is why pastors must sometimes take a man’s baptism and bury it in the ground. The hope and prayer is that the man will go down after it and finding himself in his own crypt, will finally see what his baptism meant all along. We preach men into the grave, into the grave of Jesus so that they can finally begin to live again. You must come to the end of yourself, come to the end of your goodness, come to the end so that you can finally begin. And for those who already know Jesus, the grave of Jesus is no scary place. The grave of Jesus is glory and wonder because the grave of Jesus is empty.