What Happened to God?
Now that the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s initial protest has come and gone, can we finally stop talking about the Reformation? No chance! If we’ve learned anything over this past year, it is that the more we learn about the Reformation and its impact, the more we find we need to study! What is more, the work of the Reformation continues as churches faithfully preach the Law and the Gospel from the pages of God’s Word. There are many of us who pray for the further spreading of the message of free forgiveness on account of Christ. In this way, I hope the church is always reforming.
But, are we in need of another Reformation? I have to admit, I am somewhat tired of this question. (And, for what it’s worth, my pal Joel Hess has handled it beautifully over at the Jagged Word. Check it out here.) Nonetheless, the call for a “new” Reformation is constantly coming to the fore. For any number of reasons, people are dissatisfied with the current state of Christianity. So, the thinking goes, we just need a new “movement” to awaken the church from its slothful, licentious slumbers and call her back to a fiery faith in the Gospel. A Luther-like revival is what the church really needs right now. C’mon team, let’s give them something to celebrate 500 years from now!
Now, I’m not one to put anything past the Holy Spirit and I am convinced that the Word of God is a pretty powerful thing. But I’ve begun to wonder, not so much whether or not we need a new Reformation a la Luther, but more, is a new Reformation even possible? See, the reformers in the 16th Century had a little problem that doesn’t seem to plague us anymore these days: that is, their problem was God!
The Reformers View of God
God terrified the reformers. Before the Gospel invaded their ears, they just knew the Lord was sitting up in heaven on His holy rainbow of judgment with a sword in one hand and a lily in the other, waiting to roast their sorry butts in hell (or, if you’d worked hard enough, your butt would only have to be roasted for few thousand years in purgatory). God the Judge left sinners terrified and hopeless. God’s wrath was inevitable, so you’d better get to work to ease the pain as much as possible. But, no one knew where they stood before this terrifying God. He was hidden. And, nothing terrifies quite as much as the hidden God, especially when we know He is going to reveal Himself one day in judgment of sinners!
But, we don’t have a problem with this sort of God anymore. As Gerhard Forde asks:
“Whatever happened to God? Does anyone believe in God anymore, i.e., that God is living and that he is not only love, but above all, the judge? Does anyone believe that the ultimate question for our lives is not human judgment but God’s judgment?”
I fear the answer is “no.” No one is worried about God’s judgment anymore. If anything, we’ve turned the tables on God. If we worry about Him at all, it’s because we have judged Him too weak, or absent, or callous. We are now demanding that God justify Himself to us! Robert Kolb diagnoses the issue with penetrating clarity:
“Luther viewed God as the divine power that was altogether too present in his life, as an angry, demanding parent. We view God as a modern parent—neglectful, absent, too little concerned about us to be of much use.”
At this point in history, we’ve done away with a God of wrath, the judging God. We’ve turned God into a nice guy, we’ve domesticated Him. God, as we construe Him, sure seems nice but, as Kolb points out, “too little concerned to be of much use.” So, instead of fearing Him, we ignore Him. For better or worse, we no longer view horrors like typhoons or wars as God’s wrath, but as His absence. We’re no longer sinners expecting wrath, but victims assuming disappointment. And, not to get more bleak than I have been at this point, but how in the world can we expect another Reformation when the fear of God which plagued Luther has been replaced by apathy? We don’t need a Reformation, for heaven’s sake, we need hope!
Surprisingly, the answer to our apathy towards this “absentee” God is the same answer Luther found to the terrifying hidden God: Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. For those of us (and believe me, we are still here) who are afraid of God’s judgment, the Gospel message that Jesus exchanges His body and blood for our sins and grants us His righteousness still opens the gates of paradise to us!
Far from being absent, God is found delivering Jesus to us in a manger, on a cross, and weeding Sunday morning gardens. His Holy Spirit brings that earthly God to us in water, word, bread and wine every Sunday. More than that, Jesus preached in His church “daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.” (Small Catechism, Apostles Creed, Article III). In other words, Jesus solves Luther’s problem by giving Him a gracious God. And, Jesus solves the modern problem by being present with us in mercy and promising to make all things right.
We may never get a new reformation. But so what? God has given us Jesus Christ to forgive, renew, and strengthen our faith. In Christ, God is not angry, but is your tender Father Who loves you with an everlasting love. In Christ, God is not absent, but present in this world as the One who suffered the abandonment of God on the cross in your place, and overcame it for you on Easter Sunday. All of this is yours now in the preaching of Jesus Christ. The last thing the church needs to do is pursue a new ecclesiastical movement. What we need now, more than ever, is Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and preached for you!