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Solus Christus and the Pastor

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  • Solus Christus and the Pastor

    by Rod Rosenbladt

    We are now in a position to talk about the church's ministry, that is, the office of the pastor. It is the call of the pastor to preach from the text of the Bible God's Law and God's Gospel and to administer baptism and the Lord's Supper according to the command of Christ. This is the center of what a Reformation pastor is called to do in a congregation. It is a call to do solus Christus before the local flock, Sunday after Sunday, month after month, year after year. After hammering out the sinfulness of all persons, including Christians, from the Bible, he is to announce on the basis of the text from the Bible for that week what Christ's death and resurrection have done, even for us "still-sinning believers," to meet this particular aspect of God's Law.

    The point here is that the pastor is to preach from the Bible text how the death of Christ can save even a Christian! Of the many possible themes in Scripture that may be preached, he is particularly to preach as central the forgiveness of sins wrought by Christ on our behalf.

    If the pastor does anything else that eclipses this, he is guilty of forsaking his call. If, for example, he uses the Bible text only for a call to deeper Christian living, he has forsaken his call. If he only placards Christ as an example of what we Christians are to emulate by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, he has forsaken his call. If he only preaches Christ as an answer to some perceived need we may have, other than the forgiveness of sins, he has forsaken his call. If he preaches only some laudable social or political action the congregation should take, he has forsaken his call. If he only does solid, Bible-based education on some tangential topic in the Scriptures, he has forsaken his call.

    Preaching "Christ Crucified"
    A Reformation pastor is called to preach Christ crucified to the congregation and to administer the sacraments to the congregation. Someone says, "But surely you don't mean that the pastor should be evangelizing believers from the pulpit?" Most evangelicals have no category for preaching Christ to a congregation of believers; their only category for preaching the Gospel is the evangelizing of pagans. But important as the latter is, the former is no less important.

    1. Preaching to Christians. Think of Paul's admonitions to Timothy. Timothy came soon after the initial and unique apostolic work of "laying the foundations," a matter done once by the apostles and thus never to be repeated until the end of time. Timothy's ministry (in addition to the evangelizing of pagans) was to be the ordinary ministry of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments to a congregation of the converted. What exactly did this involve? It involved what we have already described. Timothy was called week by week to preach Christ in his saving office to his congregation and to administer the sacraments to his congregation.

    Think of the inner soliloquy many Christians experience week by week. "There may have been grace for me when, as a sinner, I was initially converted. But now, having been given the Spirit of God, I fear that things have gotten worse in me rather than better. I have horribly abused all of God's good gifts to me. I was so optimistic in the beginning, when the pastor told me that Christ outside of me, dying for me, freely saved me by his death, and that the Holy Spirit now dwelling within me would aid me in following Christ. I looked forward to so much. But it has all gone badly. Others have no doubt done what God equipped them to do, but not I. I have used grace and Christ's shed blood as an excuse for doing things I probably wouldn't even have done as a pagan. I have rededicated myself to Christ more times than I can count. But it seems to stay the same, or even get worse, no matter what I do. Whatever the outer limits of Christ's grace are, I have certainly crossed them. I have utterly, consciously, and with planning afore-thought blown it all.

    "I guess I was never a Christian in the first place, because if I had been, I would have made some progress in the Christian life. Maybe I was never part of the elect. If I wasn't, there's nothing I can do about that. Anyway, I am now beyond hope. I'll try going to church for a while longer, but I think I've tried every possible thing the church has told me to do. After that, I guess I'll return to paganism and 'eat, drink and be merry' for the time I've got left. What else is there to do?"

    How does a pastor do solus Christus for this man or woman?

    First of all, he recognized that the Law has done, and is doing, its work on him or her. The pastor realizes that what is needed in this case is not the Law but the Gospel. One of the effects of Wesleyan revivalism in this country has been the common conviction that genuine conversion always show itself in measurable moral progress (and, correlatively, the lack of such progress is evidence that no true regeneration has taken place.) So the still-sinning believer is led to believe that h is not now a believer at all. Luther recognized the deadliness of this sort of theology. He knew that any counsel that turns us back into ourselves for assurance is no assurance at all. To put the matter bluntly, Luther knew that the death and resurrection of Christ in our stead was strong enough in its effect to save even a Christian!

    So the pastor's calling is to present Christ alone against the false counsel of a man's inner intuition and the false counsel of revivalism that he has taken as true. How so? The pastor must present the biblical promises concerning the sufficiency of Christ's death as sufficient so save even a morally guilty Christian.

    2. Forgiveness of sins. In the case of the Lutheran pastor, the preached Gospel, the absolving of the Christian and the distribution of the sufficient merit of Christ's vicarious death via the Lord's Supper, will be central. Whether his believing parishioner knows it or not, the issue is simply the forgiveness of sin. The question is whether the Christian is promised the forgiveness of sin on the sole basis of Christ's substitutionary death and resurrection for him. Yes or no? The biblical answer is an unequivocal "Yes!" It is a matter of solus Christus. And this, of course, will draw upon the interrelated Reformation themes of sola gratia and sola fide as well.

    One of the things that makes this so difficult for the American pastor is the victory that revivalist thought has had in our day. The emphasis in revivalism was "Christ within" more than it was "Christ outside of us."

    Luther faced this in the case of Melanchthon, his brilliant coworker. Genius that he was, Melanchthon was more "inward oriented" than was Luther. In a letter to Luther, Melanchthon fretted, "I wonder if I trust Christ enough? Perhaps I do not? What then?" Luther fired back his famous letter, "Melanchthon, go and sin bravely! Then go to the cross and bravely confess it! The whole Gospel is outside of us!"

    That which saves us is not Christ's work within us. What saves us is Christ's objective dying, his objective blood shed on an objective cross. This sounds so simple, but it is the battle between the true Gospel (which is totally objective) and a false gospel of inwardness. When our introspections result in despair (and well they might, because we continue to sin), Christ's objective and sufficient work must be re-presented to us by our pastors.

    3. The work of the pastor. Luther believed that we cannot do this for ourselves. It must be preached to us by pastors who are called to do it for us. We are not to try to "preach the gospel to ourselves." We are to ask our pastor to absolve us in Christ's name. We are to receive from his hands the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of our sin. We are to hear from his mount, "And now may the precious body and blood of Christ, by which he has made full atonement for all of your sin, strengthen and preserve you in true faith unto everlasting life. Go in peace and the Lord be with you."

    Someone replies, "It can't be that simple! Only Christ and only his death? And I am forgiven? That has no analogy in my world. It can't be true."

    But it is not without analogy. Western literature is replete with analogies. Granted, they are parasitic on the Great Story, but they are analogies. One need only think, for example, of Dicken's Tale of Two Cities and the main character giving his life for his double. In a lesser vein, think of Spock dying to save his fellow crew members in the Star Trek film The Wrath of Khan. Or of Tim Robbins's character (at great cost) making opera and Mozart cold beer available for his fellow prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption. Or think of Flatliners (with the caveat that since there was no "great substitute" in this film one had to go back in time and somehow atone for his or her own sin). Or think of people who pay 200 dollars an hour in order to hear their psychotherapist, who has no doctrine of sin, let alone any doctrine of the Atonement, tell them that they are somehow OK. These and many others are lesser pictures of the Great Picture.

    False Christs Being Preached in Our Day
    Solus Christus means there is only one genuine and saving Christ. He is not only sufficient in his bleeding and dying to save us. He is the only Christ. Today's American culture offers many "Christs" who are not really Christ at all. Asserting solus Christus means that a Reformation Christian rejects positions in opposition to it as false ("and therefore we condemn..."). I will mention just a few of these positions.

    1. Christ the psychotherapist. This is an extremely popular position in today's evangelicalism. This "Christ" is preached as the one who can heal our inner psychological wounds. He can heal broken marriages, aid us in communication with our children, and deal with other dysfunctional situations.

    2. Christ our example. Often Christ is preached as a moral example whom we are to emulate. The idea lying behind this view is that our sin is little more than confusion and that we have within us the inner moral wherewithal to do whatever should be done, once we are taught it. The "gospel" of this particular "Christ" is pure law, though few pastors who preach "Christ is your model" seem to recognize this fact.

    3. Christ who gives health and wealth. Surprisingly common is the preaching of a "Christ" who always grants health or wealth to those whose faith in him reaches the level it should. Those who have watched the Pentecostal televangelists recognize this "Christ."

    4. Christ the lover. This is popular in certain seminaries where faculties recommend (or even require) students to read the supposed profundities of the mystics. The idea here is not (as it should be) that the student is enabled to critique these writings as examples of man's perennial attempts to use inner experience as the basis for his justification before God. Rather, the student is encouraged to see the possible application of such writings to the laity in his parish. But as Luther say, mystical experience is just one more counterfeit "ladder to heaven." Such examples could easily be multiplied.
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