Those of you who know my story know that I grew up with a Lutheran, that is Missouri Synod Lutheran, identity. Part of that is because of the Lutheran day school attached to the congregation of my youth. Six days a week were spent in its walls, unless I was playing sick, which happened a lot. But in all those years that Missouri Synod Lutheran identity wasn’t put to the test. That didn’t happen until I left Concordia Seminary in St. Louis to attend Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL. At Northern I figured out my identity wasn’t something just forced on me, but something that was a part of me, something I couldn’t easily just give up, so I returned to Concordia Seminary and am now a pastor in The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod.
Those who know the longer version of my story often say something to the effect of, your story has given you something special. Only, I don’t think it has. It is true that I am now much more equipped to handle certain situations and am able to give answers to questions I wasn’t before, but my story isn’t a trump card. Just because I took the time to examine my belief system doesn’t make it impervious to attack. It doesn’t make me untouchable. It also doesn’t mean that someone who grew up in and stayed in the good ship Missouri is somehow anything less. People are different, their stories are different, and in the end, experience cannot be the great trump card.
“Enter Jesus the Christ.” The next few days are important in the church year, with good reason. And although Christ indeed comes for the sake of the world, although he dies and rises again for me, in the end, I don’t matter. It isn’t about my experience, my trump card, my ability to theologize. In the end, Christ matters, and my life is hidden in His. Below is something written by a former son of the Missouri Synod. And while he never made his way back, his words speak to me, not because of our individual experiences of walking away, but because of what allows us to walk together… Christ.
“Justification by Faith.” Is that in the Large Catechism? Well, sort of.
1. Faith can be good or bad, but it [is at last] what makes or breaks us. For faith, whether good or bad, means “having a god.” And the god we trust is the god we’re stuck with, for good or bad.
2. That kind of retribution (we get what we believe in) is the Law of God. Whether we believe in that God or not, his is the Law which governs us: what we most love and trust (and fear), that is our god. God sees to that.
3. This God, the one true God, is the God whose tenfold command is his precondition, his righteous requirement. His precondition for what? For our getting and keeping his good will, including all his gifts. Call it “life.” “Do this and you shall live.” No righteousness, no life.
4. If we fail at righteousness (that is, I we disobey the command) we may still receive life, except in that case the life we receive we become indebted for. And the debt we incur, always more and more, we cannot ever repay, even by dying.
5. No wonder that the more conscientious we are about obeying the Creator’s command, the harder we find it to trust that we please and delight him. For obviously our lives are anything but God-pleasing.
6. Still, we are commanded not only to be pleasing to God but also to believe that we are. Yet if we did believe that, we would be lying, and we are also commanded not to lie.
7. Notice how the problem comes back to faith. The one faith we are commanded to have – namely the faith that we delight God – we cannot have, not only because we lack the strength to believe it but because, even if we could believe it, it would be untrue.
8. Enter Jesus the Christ. He still operates on the same premise of the Creator’s Law: “righteousness” is the precondition of “life”; no “righteousness,” no “life.”
9. But now, with Christ Jesus, the “righteousness” which earns us “life” is HIS righteousness. And the life that he earns for us is HIS life. In exchange he accepts our sin and our death and calls it even.
10. Our unrighteousness is now hid or buried in Christ’s righteousness and our lives in his life. No wonder that now we believe that we please God. For now we do, in this “joyous exchange,” this Sweet Swap with Christ.
11. It is the Holying Spirit who gives us the power to believe that. But it is what God, the whole triune God, has done in Christ that makes the faith true in the first place.
Robert W. Bertram
November 9, 1993