Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, President of the LCMS, writes a brief and encouraging piece in January 2021’s issue of The Lutheran Witness. It is a message that deserves echoing here. How does someone have certainty of life when they are facing uncertain adversities, especially those that directly threaten our life? This is where we Christians have the advantage.
Rev. Harrison calls us to some words from Job. Remember that Job lost his entire economy (his entire way of living), he lost all ten of his children (7 sons, 3 daughters), and then he himself started to suffer immensely as he was plagued with sores that covered his whole body while he sat in the ashes of his skin while he scraped the sores with a broken shard of pottery. To top it all off, his wife nags him to give up and curse God and die while his three “friends” try to convince him it’s his fault. How do we know Job’s suffering was not his fault? Because twice God acknowledges Job to be His servant (a favourable term) and “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8; 2:3).
Yet hear the words Job confesses in spite of all this uncertainty he was facing:
Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!Job 19:23-27
Before Christ is even incarnated, suffers, dies, is buried, and raises from the dead, Job confesses his faith—his certainty—in Christ his Redeemer, with whom he is certain he will stand in the flesh after his time on earth is up. Such certainty is only possible by faith.
While there are many ways this certainty can be described, Rev. Harrison gives a helpful summary from the six chief parts of Luther’s Small Catechism.
The Ten Commandments
How can the Commandments give us certainty when they tell us to do stuff and we fail? Because the command to do stuff is not the only function of the Law. Rev. Harrison reminds us that the Law’s “chief purpose is to drive us to repentance” (Harrison, LW 140:1). The Law gives us certainty because it drives us to repentance, in which we find certainty in Christ who promises to forgive us our sins. We might be certain that we’ll fail in keeping the Law, but we can also be certain that Christ will forgive us our sins and failures. “The law drives us to Jesus who met all its demands and died to put its punishments to death” (Harrison, LW 140:1).
This reminds me of a question non-Christians always ask Christians, which Christians don’t always know how to answer: “Why don’t Christians do the law?” Like the Pharisees who asked Jesus questions in order to trap him, their motive is the same. They read Scriptures like Leviticus and Deuteronomy (and that’s it), reading of the laws that required stoning as punishment for sins like homosexuality and adultery, and think this is some trump card to call us out in our hypocrisy and “homophobia.”
To answer their trap in the briefest of ways: (1) Because we’re not Jewish, and (2) Jesus’ death put the Law’s punishments to death. If these punishments still applied to the Christian, then Jesus died for nothing. A rebuttal is possible, “Well, what about the Ten Commandments? That’s part of the law.” Yes, it is; but Jesus taught the Ten Commandments (the moral law) in the New Testament and did not teach the civil and ceremonial laws.
The Creed is divided into three articles, making the Creed Trinitarian in nature. “The First Article (Creation) teaches that this world and all its inhabitants are God’s precious creation and creatures” (Harrison, LW 140:1). In other words, the First Article of the Creed gives us the certainty that we are God’s creatures. The thing is, though, this is upsetting to the non-Christian while it is of great comfort for the Christian. To be a creature means you belong to someone—someone owns you. Yet no one wants to be owned! That means you’re a slave! But to be a slave of God is a tremendously good thing. Paul delineates between two different kinds of slaves: slaves of sin and slaves of God,
What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.Romans 6:15-18
To be righteous means to be in the right. But we can never be in the right, despite our many attempts to do so (self-justification). So, God made us right—that is, He made us right with Him—in Jesus.
Previously, we were slaves to sin. Slaves can either be bought or set free. The Good News is that God did both—He purchased us with the precious blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and He set us free in Christ (Romans 6:18; Galatians 5:1). But how can we be both slaves of God and free in Christ? It is a paradox only God can maintain. God maintains the paradox of His being one Being yet three Persons; He can maintain our both being slaves of God and free in Christ.
As Christians, we are doubly owned by God. First, upon conception, we are His human creatures. Before we are even born, we are creatures who belong to God (all humans belong to God, whether they like it or not). Secondly, upon our being born again in Baptism, God makes us His in Christ—He makes us righteous, He makes us right with Him. With this certainty of being God’s creatures we have the certainty that He cares for us.
That’s the First Article. “The Second Article (Redemption) teaches with all biblical certainty that Christ ‘has redeemed me… not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death’ (SC, Second Article; see 1 Peter 1:19)” (Harrison, LW 140:1). Structurally, the Second Article is at the centre of the Creed; theologically, the Second Article is also the centre of all theology. We call this the theology of the cross—that all Scripture and all of life’s experiences are to be viewed through the lens of cross, Christ having died and risen for you.
“The Third Article (Sanctification) teaches us, ‘I believe that I cannot… believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel’ (SC, Third Article)” (Harrison, LW 140:1). In other words, the Third Article gives us certainty because here we confess, “My salvation is certain because it’s not won by me, not preserved by me. It’s all God’s working, beginning to end” (Harrison, LW 140:1).
Thank the Lord that salvation is not up to us! Have you ever tried going on a diet or formulating an exercise routine? Especially as a New Year’s Resolution? How well did that go? Not so well, did it? Even if we do manage to go on a diet or exercise, even then it’s temporary; inevitably, we fall off the wagon. If we can hardly keep such promises for ourselves, let alone for others, how can we expect to achieve salvation by our own good deeds? We cannot. The Good News—the certainty—is that God, in Christ, did this for you and me.
The Lord’s Prayer
What a beautiful certainty we have that we have a God who desires to talk with us! Luther describes the Lord’s Prayer, “‘With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence [certainty!] we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father’ (SC, Lord’s Prayer Introduction)” (Harrison, LW 140:1).
The beginning—or intro—of the Lord’s Prayer is essential, “Our Father.” To whom do we pray? God the Judge? God the Enigmatic Being Who Is Detached from Us? No, but God our Father. The personal pronoun “our” tells us two things: (1) As a genitive of possession, God is personally yours and mine; and (2) “our” is plural, which strongly suggests a communal aspect to the prayer (so, throw away your fictions of flimsy churchiness where you think you can be an individual and not go to church with other brothers and sisters in Christ). And God as Father tells us all we need to know about our relationship to Him: as Father, He has taken upon Himself the duty and responsibility to care for you and me (and also to discipline us when we misbehave, don’t forget that part).
Evangelicals have a misunderstanding of Baptism as a “public declaration of your commitment to Jesus” and think it to be merely a symbol. Yet it is much, much more than that. Not only do the Apostles never treat Baptism as a meaningless symbol and not only is Baptism never used as a “public declaration of your commitment to Jesus,” but treating Baptism this way also leaves the Christian with incredible uncertainty.
Just in the Third Article, we saw already that salvation is not you and me winning salvation or our preserving it because we are fundamentally incapable of doing these things. If Baptism were our public declaration of our commitment to Christ, we would soon lose it, likely minutes after we’re baptised the next time we sin. It is not up to us; it is up to God, and He has promised to be faithful.
Conversely, the Scriptures treat Baptism as a crucial event that is central to our identity. “By being baptized, Jesus put Himself into Baptism” (Harrison, LW 140:1). This echoes what the Church Fathers taught about Jesus’ Baptism. Jesus said He was baptised in order “to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). The Baptism of Jesus is not “simply about individual sin and his own righteousness. The baptism of Jesus is related not only to his own righteousness, but to that of the whole people” (McDonnell, 17). In Baptism, God makes you actually righteous!
For Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-ca. 107), Jesus “was baptized in order to sanctify the waters” and “to fulfill all justification” (McDonnell, 19). For Justin Martyr (100-165 AD), “the baptism of Jesus is the messianic manifestation of who this person is, a messianic sign given to the Church… Justin is attempting to show that at birth, at the baptism, and finally at the crucifixion, through the signs of power and his true identity, Christ was demonstrating the plan of salvation” (McDonnell, 43-44).
For Hilary of Poitiers (315-367 AD), Jesus’ Baptism “‘fully realized the mysteries of human salvation'” (McDonnell, 44). For Gregory Nazianzus (329-389 AD), at His Baptism, “The cosmic Lord brings the cosmos, which he carries with him in the mysteries of his life, emerging with him from the waters of the Jordan, in which the Spirit was given to him without measure” (McDonnell, 60). For Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 AD), “‘in the baptism of Jesus all of us, putting off our sins like some poor and patched garment, are clothed in the holy and most fair garment of regeneration.’ In the baptism of Jesus we are clothed in the garments of rebirth” (McDonnell, 129).
From Jesus, to the Apostles, to the early Church Fathers and on, the truth of Baptism has been the certainty that you are saved. St. Paul speaks this way quite vividly in Romans 6:1-14. And as St. Peter says:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which He went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to Him.1 Peter 3:18-22
If you have been baptised into Christ, you have absolute certainty of your salvation and future resurrection. “God’s own child, I gladly say it: / I am baptized into Christ! / He, because I could not pay it, / Gave my full redemption price. / Do I need earth’s treasures many? / I have one worth more than any / That brought me salvation free / Lasting to eternity! / Sin, disturb my soul no longer: / I am baptized into Christ! / I have comfort even stronger: / Jesus’ cleansing sacrifice. / Should a guilty conscience seize me / Since my Baptism did release me / In a dear forgiving flood, / Sprinkling me with Jesus’ blood?” (LSB 594:1-2).
Confession and Absolution
In this sacrament, whether corporally or privately, you confess your sins before your pastor and he forgives you your sins “in the stead and by the command of” Christ (LSB, p. 185). Why does this sacrament give you certainty? Because Jesus Himself commanded it. “He breathed on [His disciples] and said to them… ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them'” (John 20:22-23).
Jesus gave all His disciples, including you, authority to forgive sins (see also 1 Peter 2:9). When a mother commands her child to clean his room and he refuses, is brought to acknowledge his sin, asks for forgiveness, and she forgives her son, is this Christ’s forgiveness? Yes, because she is a Christian in the priesthood of all believers.
So, why do we have a pastor to forgive everyone’s sins both publicly and privately if any Christian can forgive my sins? Because the church has called him to be the guy—the Absolution Man (credit to Dr. Joel Biermann)—to be the one who forgives us our sins by the stead and command of Jesus Christ. We have a place—a person—to go to where we can know with absolute certainty that we are forgiven not only of his own Baptism but also because of his office (the Pastoral Office). “Jesus said it. Jesus gave it. Faith receives it. It is the Gospel. It is certain” (Harrison, LW 140:1).
The Lord’s Supper
In the Eucharist, you receive Christ’s actual body and blood “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). Much ink has been spilled over whether Jesus actually meant the bread and wine are His actual, real body and blood. As Rev. Harrison puts it, “Those who assert that ‘this is My body’ actually means ‘this is not really My body’ forever have the burden of explaining why Jesus did not mean what He said” (Harrison, LW 140:1). In other words, they rob themselves of Jesus’ certainty, burdening themselves with the impossible effort to prove Jesus did not mean what He said.
When you receive Jesus’ body and blood in the Eucharist, you taste, swallow, and digest His forgiveness. Nothing can be more certain than that.
Jesus is Certain
Jesus is certain of everything He said and did. Therefore, you can be certain of everything Jesus said and did: His commands that bring you to repentance and to rely on Him; the Creed that tells you He created you with love, redeemed you from your sins, and sanctifies you in the Spirit; the words He has given you to pray, the waters of Baptism that have washed all your sins away and has made you a participant in His own Baptism, His words of forgiveness spoken through the pastor and your brother or sister in Christ against whom you sin; and the Eucharist where He again delivers His forgiveness to you, this time in His real body and blood.
Harrison, Matthew. “Certainty in Christ.” The Lutheran Witness 140, no. 1 (January 2021): 1, 26.
McDonnell, Kilian. The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996.