The Monster of Uncertainty…

Is it true that the only things that are certain are death and taxes? It would seem true in every age, but especially in the Middle Ages. It was a time where traditional values and certainties were being questioned. Where wars, plagues, famine and economic issues also contributed to the instability of the times—not unlike our own era.

Then there was the Church whose teachings did little to give certainty, in fact, they only added to people’s insecurity and fear. Many believed that this was deliberate so that people would become more dependent upon the Church and what it offered in order to gain salvation. Thus attendance at mass, confession and penance, the buying of indulgences, the adoration of relics, and the joining of monastic orders offered ways by which someone could increase devotion and gain sufficient merit for obtaining eternal life. But how much was enough?Where was the certainty?

Dr. Richard Bucher, in a message titled “Joyful Certainty in an Age of Uncertainty,” mentioned a popular catechism of the day first printed in 1470. Derek Kolde’s “Mirror of the Christian Man” went through 19 editions before the Protestant Reformation and was probably the most popular catechism of its time. Kolde said, “There are three things I know to be true that frequently make my heart heavy. The first troubles my spirit, because I will have to die. The second troubles my heart more, because I do not know when. The third troubles me above all; I do not know where I will go.” In a nutshell, these three things exemplified the uncertainty of the age and the struggle that confronted Martin Luther and everyone else who desired to obtain a gracious God.

Luther was a type-A personality who could not be satisfied with just doing the best he could. Whether it was the Holy Spirit or a rocky relationship with a demanding father (or both), he always questioned whether his best was good enough. He certainly did not feel righteous and the more he evaluated himself, the more sinful he felt and the more terrified he became of the wrath of God. Luther’s monastical superiors saw that while he exceeded all the requirements and became a priest in record time, yet this terrible uncertainty about whether he was truly acceptable to God was not normal. He was repulsed by himself; even his confession and penance were self-centered, designed to save his own skin from hell. So his superiors suggested he begin to study theology, which took him to the Scripture.

His study of the Psalms, Galatians, and Romans ultimately brought him to a place summarized by Romans 1:17: “The righteous one (the justified one) shall live by faith.” Luther began to grasp that St. Paul used a legal term “to justify” in order to describe what happens when a sinner exercises faith in Jesus Christ. The sinner receives a righteousness that is not his own, but is the very righteousness of Christ accepted by God as a substitute for the sinner’s unrighteousness. While the Church called this a legal fiction, Luther called it a sweet exchange; “Thou Lord Jesus art my righteousness and I am thy sin. Thou has taken on thyself what thou wast not, and given to me what I am not.”

Herein lies Luther’s certainty, and mine as well. When I believe my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship with God depends on my own efforts, the less certainty I have of my acceptance by God. Have I done enough? How can I be certain?

Listen to Luther: I am saying this in order to refute the dangerous doctrine of the sophists and the monks, who taught and believed that no one can know for certain whether he is in a state grace, even if he does good works according to his ability and lives a blameless life. This statement, widely accepted and believed, was a principle and practically an article of faith throughout the papacy. With this wicked idea of theirs they utterly ruined the doctrine of faith, overthrew faith, disturbed consciences, abolished Christ from the church . . . If everything else were sound there [in the papacy] still this monster of uncertainty is worse than all the other monsters. (Luther’s Works, 26:377, 386)

And this is our foundation: the Gospel commands us to look, not to our good deeds or perfection but at God himself as he promises, and at Christ himself, the Mediator . . . And this is the reason why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves, so that we do not depend on our strength, conscience, experience, person, works, but depend on that which is outside of ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God which cannot deceive. (LW, 26:387)

If [a person] senses that he is in doubt, let him exercise his faith, struggle against the doubt, and strive for certainty, so that he can say: “I know that I have been accepted and that I have the Holy Spirit, not on account of my worthiness or virtue but on account of Christ, who subjected himself to the Law on our account and took away the sins of the world. If I am a sinner, and if I err, He is righteous and cannot err.” (LW, 26, 379)

Thus I believe that the Christian can be certain of salvation when that certainty is founded on the promise of God and the work of Jesus Christ! I hope you believe that.

Next week we want to look at where good works fit into the life of the Christian. It may surprise you what we find!

In a moment, life changes forever…

A couple of weeks ago I was driving from Annapolis, Maryland to Strasburg, Pennsylvania—before sunrise. It was a beautiful drive once I got around the Baltimore Beltway into the countryside and onto the serpentine roads of northern MD and southern PA. As the sun was starting to bulge over the horizon, some of the houses were still mostly dark with just a light or two flickering on as people were getting up for work or school. A new day was dawning. I’m sure that most thought it was just going to be another day of doing the same old thing—at least it was Friday, relief was in sight.

I mused that for some, however, something might take place today that would change life forever. Life would never be the same. Someone might die or receive a diagnosis of a terminal disease. Someone might discover a spousal affair or get divorced. Someone might get fired or go bankrupt; whatever the event, everything would change. Life would be dominated by it—nothing would be able to contend with its significance, not only to an individual but to an entire family. How does one ever prepare for such a thing? How does one cope once it happens?

It brought to mind the lives of two of our next door neighbors. One was an older lady who had cancer and was one day being picked up by a friend for a chemo treatment. There was no answer when the friend knocked on the door or tried to call on her cell phone. I was in the yard, packing the car for a vacation trip. The friend saw me and asked if I would go into the house and see why the neighbor was not answering her door or phone. I went in, calling her name and heard a muffled “help” coming from the basement. Apparently, our dear neighbor had fallen down the cellar stairs and was lying on the cold cement floor. She was conscious but very weak. She said she had been there since the night before and could not move. I covered her up with more blankets, called 911, and prayed with her until the paramedics came and took her to the hospital. When we returned from our vacation 2 weeks later, we found out the she had died. Life suddenly changed for her entire family.

A second neighbor, a good man in his late 50’s early 60’s, also fell down his basement steps less than two months ago. His adult sons estimate he had been lying at the bottom of the stairs unconscious for 2 days before they found him. He never fully regained consciousness. I visited him in the hospital as did some of our neighbors. It was determined that he had injured his brain in the fall and would never regain the use of his limbs. When his organs began shutting down, they brought him home under Hospice care. He died last week and we had a very meaningful celebration of life service for him hosted by his sons. My neighbor and I had talked a few times about eternal things—one time being just after I received my cancer diagnosis. He was open and receptive. I pray that he continued to move towards God. Life has suddenly and radically changed for his family.

I am sure that you can think of more examples of how life suddenly changed for some of your neighbors, friends, and their families—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. First there was light . . . then came the night. Maybe you have had such an experience.

So, as we turn the lights on every morning wondering if this will be the day life will change, we can do so in one of three ways:

  • We can take life for granted and believe that things like this happen to others and not to us—anyway, the weekend is coming.
  • We can fear life and what it might bring to the extent we take no risks, close our hearts to others, and never enjoy the adventure of our journey.
  • We can embrace life in all its richness by daily entrusting ourselves into the care of a loving and sovereign God who will not allow anything to come into our lives that has not first passed through his Fatherly hand. A God who loves us more than we know and gave himself to us in his Son, Jesus Christ.

In the darkness and uncertainty of WWII, Pastor Helmut Thielicke wrote a small book titled, “The Silence of God.” In it there is a sentence that has helped me face my own fear and uncertainty about tomorrow. He said, “If the last hour belongs to God, we do not need to fear the next moment.”