By Paul Koch –
Many years ago, I experienced a sort of enlightenment of self-awareness. It was one of those moments when you find yourself in a position to be able to step back and examine yourself and make new assessments that will impact your life. It happened in our basic hermeneutics class at the seminary, where I struggled with our primary text, What Does This Mean? by Dr. Jim Voelz. Voelz asserts right out of the gate that it is impossible to achieve a truly neutral reading of a text. All interpreters interpret from a particular stance shaped by their own baggage which they bring to the text. Though we can and should strive for a “somewhat neutral” reading of the text, it is not a simple thing to accomplish. Part of that task is to understand one’s own stance. The creeds and confessions of a particular believer and church can be of great help.
It was while my mind was racing through the ramifications of such an assertion that I had my moment of enlightenment. I began to recognize and think about the assumptions that I make. And while I realized that my assumptions have a major impact on how I interpret a given text, they have proven to be far more dangerous in how I carry out my vocation as a pastor.
What I assume about the people to whom I minister will drastically shape what I speak.
Just the other day, I was at a meeting with a bunch of the local pastors in my circuit. We were having a lively discussion on Article 20 of the Augsburg Confession on Good Works when a colleague reminded me that among Christian churches one of the things this is often simply assumed and therefore not highlighted is the Gospel itself. The confession that we are saved by grace alone is assumed, so the focus of almost every sermon is not the Gospel but the exhortation and encouragement though the divine Law.
In other words, if you were to speak to any given individual Christian of almost any branding and asked them if they are saved by their works or by Christ’s, they would say by Christ’s alone. This confession, though, is simply assumed; it no longer needs to be stressed or even proclaimed all that often. If the individual Christians with whom I come in contact are freed in Christ, then my task is how to best manage and guide that freedom—i.e. by assuming the Gospel, we default to the Law.
However, this is a dangerous assumption. Not only does it make an ass out of you and me, but it can also leave the individual conscience bound in despair. The Law is written on our hearts; it can be found throughout our government, in places of employment, and in our homes. We can hate the Law, and we can act against it. We can try to ignore it, but the Law is what our lives are saturated in. People may go their own ways with regard to the Law, picking and choosing which part we want to follow, vying for the rights of the homeless and poor while turning a blind eye to the killing of the unborn, or going to bat for the weakest amongst us while remaining silent as corporations and special interests send our brave troops into harm’s way.
We can and will argue about the right use and application of the Law, but in the end, we will remain bound in the system of the Law. We want to tweak the edges and make it work better for us but not so good for those we dislike. And if we assume the Gospel, then this never ending game is all that we have left.
A better way is to assume the Law. Assume that those I talk to down at O’Leary’s Cocktails, at the gym, or in my congregation are bound up in the system of the Law. They enter through the doors of the church not with the wide-eyed wonder of how to best use their newfound freedom but with the exhausted faces of those who have been tweaking the edges in a losing battle to make the game of the Law work out in the favor.
When I assume the Law, I assume that they are locked in a battle that they cannot win. The only hope and assurance is a word outside of themselves, a word that can set them free from the bondage. By assuming the Law, the Gospel takes center stage. And when the Gospel is boldly proclaimed, even those words of guidance and exhortation begin to serve the cause of freedom.