First, a confession: I wasted too many years as a pastor trying to ratchet up the statistics by reading books on church growth, which almost invariably had me laying prostrate before the Almighty Flow Chart. Apparently, Jesus died so we could fill the pews – not necessarily change lives – and the Holy Spirit could do His work as long as He was marketable.
I’ve since seen my error. I’m racing through the literature and making up for lost time, grabbing theologians from the right and left: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Donald Bloesch, Thomas Oden, Jacques Ellul, NT Wright, Stanley Hauerwas, Roger Olson, Stanley Grenz, and others. And I have not yet begun to fight. Give me more and more. I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I find thinkers from previous ages more gripping than the moderns. Three especially shine: Augustine, Martin Luther, and Karl Barth. Each made colossal mistakes – with Luther’s chilling essay against the Jews the most inexcusable – but each understood that theology was a discipline offered to the Church at large, not merely to academia. What’s more, each wrestles with God. They’ve glimpsed transcendence. They’re doing theology on their knees. They’re imperfect because they see things through a glass dimly, but at least they’ve tried.
I tried finding what each said about Good Friday. It’s allowed me to gaze at the day through their insights.
Luther (1484 to 1506), the Father of the Reformation, is willing to plunge deep into the darkness, which is not surprising to anyone who has read him. He uses seemingly morbid language for American 21st-century ears. In his Good Friday sermon “On How To Contemplate Christ’s Holy Sufferings,” he discusses three harmful methods, then says this: “Fourthly, they meditate on the Passion of Christ aright, who so view Christ that they become terror-stricken in heart at the sight, and their conscience at once sinks in despair. This terror-stricken feelings should spring forth, so that you see the severe wrath and the unchangeable earnestness of God in regard to sin and sinners, in that he was unwilling that his only and dearly beloved Son should set sinners free unless he paid the costly ransom for them … An earnestness must be present that is inexpressible and unbearable, which a person so immeasurably great goes to meet, and suffers and dies for it; and if you reflect upon it real deeply, that God’s Son, the eternal wisdom of the Father, himself suffers, you will indeed be terror-stricken; and the more you reflect the deeper will be the impression.”
Many would respond with terror at Luther’s call to be “terror-stricken.” It is “unhealthy” because it makes us feel bad — because feeling good is always healthy. Right? Perhaps not. How healthy is the individual who laughs at Cambodia’s killing fields or the bodies floating down Rwanda’s rivers? The unbearable terror-stricken response is the healthy response.
Luther forces us deeper into the darkness: “Fifthly, that you deeply believe and never doubt the least, that you are the one who thus martyred Christ. For your sins most surely did it. Thus St. Peter struck and terrified [his audience] as with a thunderbolt in Acts 2, 36-37, when he spoke to them all in common: ‘Him have ye crucified,’ so that three thousand were terror-stricken the same day and tremblingly cried to the apostles: ‘0 beloved brethren what shall we do?’ Therefore, when you view the nails piercing through his hands, firmly believing it is your work. Do you behold his crown of thorns, believe the thorns are your wicked thoughts, etc.”
He pushes us still deeper in points six, seven, eight, and beyond: “For the characteristic, natural work of Christ’s sufferings is that they make all men equal and alike, so that as Christ was horribly martyred as to body and soul in our sins, we must also like him be martyred in our consciences by our sins. This does not take place by means of many words, but by means of deep thoughts and a profound realization of our sins.”
But he doesn’t leave us there. As Tony Campolo’s pastor once said, Sunday is a-comin’: “Until the present we have been in the Passion week and have celebrated Good Friday in the right way: now we come to Easter and Christ’s resurrection. When man perceives his sins in this light and is completely terror-stricken in his conscience, he must be on his guard that his sins do not thus remain in his conscience, and nothing but pure doubt certainly come out of it; but just as the sins flowed out of Christ and we became conscious of them, so should we pour them again upon him and set our conscience free.” So, he says, “cast your sins from yourself upon Christ, believe with a festive spirit that your sins are his wounds and sufferings, that he carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Is 53,6 says: “Jehovah hath laid on him the iniquity of us all;” and St. Peter in his first Epistle 2, 24: “Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree” of the cross; and St. Paul in 2 Cor 5,21: “Him who knew no sin was made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Upon these and like passages you must rely with all your weight, and so much the more the harder your conscience martyrs you. For if you do not take this course, but miss the opportunity of stilling your heart, then you will never secure peace, and must yet finally despair in doubt. For if we deal with our sins in our conscience and let them continue within us and be cherished in our hearts, they become much too strong for us to manage and they will live forever. But when we see that they are laid on Christ and he has triumphed over them by his resurrection and we fearlessly believe it, then they are dead and have become as nothing. For upon Christ they cannot rest, there they are swallowed up by his resurrection, and you see now no wound, no pain, in him, that is, no sign of sin. Thus St. Paul speaks in Rom 4, 25, that he was delivered up for our trespasses and was raised for our justification; that is, in his sufferings he made known our sins and also crucified them; but by his resurrection he makes us righteous and free from all sin, even if we believe the same differently.”
He concludes: “But now bestir yourself to the end: first, not to behold Christ’s sufferings any longer; for they have already done their work and terrified you; but press through all difficulties and behold his friendly heart, how full of love it is toward you, which love constrained him to bear the heavy load of your conscience and your sin. Thus will your heart be loving and sweet toward him, and the assurance of your faith be strengthened. Then ascend higher through the heart of Christ to the heart of God, and see that Christ would not have been able to love you if God had not willed it in eternal love, to which Christ is obedient in his love toward you; there you will find the divine, good father heart, and, as Christ says, be thus drawn to the Father through Christ.”
Luther says more, but we have enough to grasp his insight: Redemptive guilt is far better than guilt-avoidance. He forces us to see sin for what it is – and the healthy response is absolute terror. But redemptive guilt – as opposed to morbid guilt – does not leave us in the grave. Like Christ, we rise again.
The Church does no one any favors when it buries the terror in a heap of health-and-wealth clichés – and we heal no one when we merely try to fill our pews. Luther, medieval though he sounds, offers a far better remedy when he escorts us through the darkness and into the resurrection’s light.
Augustine (354 to 430 AD), often thought of as the “father of theology,” sees us in Christ through his life and passion: Christ “represented us in Himself, when He willed to be tempted by Satan. For in Christ you were tempted, since Christ had flesh for Himself from you, salvation from Himself for you; death for Himself from you, life from Himself for you; insults for Himself from you, honors from Himself for you; therefore temptation for Himself from you, victory from Himself for you. If in Him we have been tempted, in Him we overcome the devil. Do you observe that Christ was tempted, and not also that He conquered? Recognize yourself as tempted in Him, and recognize yourself as conquering in Him.”
Barth (1886 to 1968) helped turned the tide against German theological “liberalism,” which often jettisoned key Christian teachings to accommodate modern thought, and resurrected the insights of classic theologians such as Anselm of Canturbury (1033 to 1109), John Calvin (1509 to 1564), and Luther. This quote softens Luther’s “terror” without cheapening our Good Friday devotion by bringing insight from Eastern Orthodoxy: “The mystery of the Incarnation unfolds into the mystery of Good Friday and of Easter. And once more it is as it has been so often in this whole mystery of faith, that we must always see two things together, we must always understand one by the other. In the history of the Christian faith it has, indeed, always been the case that the knowledge of Christians has gravitated more to the one side or to the other. We may take it that the Western Church, the Church of the Occident, has a decided inclination towards the theologia crucis—that is, towards bringing out and emphasizing the fact that He was surrendered for our transgressions. Whereas the Eastern Church brings more into the foreground the fact that He was raised for our justification, and so inclines towards the theologia gloriae. In this matter there is no sense in wanting to play off one against the other. You know that from the beginning Luther strongly worked out the Western tendency—not theologia gloriae but theologia crucis. What Luther meant by that is right. But we ought not to erect and fix any opposition; for there is no theologia crucis which does not have its complement in the theologia gloriae. Of course, there is no Easter without Good Friday, but equally certainly there is no Good Friday without Easter! Too much tribulation and sullenness are too easily wrought into Christianity. But if the Cross is the Cross of Jesus Christ and not a speculation on the Cross, which fundamentally any heathen might also have, then it cannot for one second be forgotten or overlooked that the Crucified rose again from the dead the third day. We shall in that case celebrate Good Friday quite differently, and perhaps it would be well not to sing on Good Friday the doleful, sad Passion hymns, but to begin to sing Easter hymns. It is not a sad and miserable business that took place on Good Friday; for He rose again. I wanted to say this first, that you are not to take abstractly what we have to say about the death and the Passion of Christ, but already to look beyond it to the place where His glory is revealed.”
In essence, we can walk the resurrected life even on the day of terror – because Sunday is, indeed, coming.