I’ve been reading Bo Giertz’ recently translated book Christ’s Church, and I find it compelling how much the situation in Sweden in the 1930s seems to match the current state of the U.S. Church. Our challenges may appear in different guises, but the Church has never had a golden age, and it never will in this creation. We live always cruce tectum [under the cross]. The remedy to our problems is always the same.
The church is therefore obligated to care for the Word with the same commitment as she cares for the sacraments. God has given both of them to us because both are needed. If we neglect the preaching of the Word, it is a sign that we have a false understanding of the sacraments. If the sacraments are pushed aside, it is just as much a sign that the Word is no longer received in the right way. In the former case one tries to avoid God’s judgment upon our sins and His demands for repentance and instead put one’s trust solely in the sacraments, as if they would work ex opere operato, that is merely by the external mechanical use of them. In the latter case, when the sacraments are pushed aside [imo, our greater temptation today], it often seems to be a sign indicating that the Word has also lost its sacramental character: it is no longer received as the living Word of God, which judges and transforms, but as a kind of “view of life,” that engages man’s thoughts and feelings but not his total being and everyday life. Just as the rationalism of the 1800s could not understand the sacraments, because it did not want to see God so really present as He is, nor could it understand the Word, because it did not want to receive it as an irrevocable authority with power to judge and restore. This is in both cases due to the same reinterpretation of Christianity: a slipping away from faith in the incarnated God who in boundless love became man to save us, to faith in the mild Father who in exalted majesty rules through the laws of nature and quite graciously looks down at His capable children, as they are helping Him to correct the antiquated doctrines and the unhistorical view of the Bible, the legacy from a less enlightened era. …
All that the Church does is based on the firm faith that the Word is efficient and that without the Word there is no salvation for this suffering world, since it does not know God. Nothing but God’s word and sacrament can make a person a Christian. If the Word does not have any effect on her, nothing else will help. In times of decline [!], when the crowds are thinning seriously, the Church must only ask herself if she has rightly administered the sacraments and if she has proclaimed the Word purely and clearly and lovingly. If she has done that, then she has also done all that is in her power and all that God has commanded her to do for the conversion of man. He who hardens himself before God’s word rightly proclaimed has therewith said no to God Himself. Our heavenly Father must again and again experience that grief. The Church too must live with that grief, in prayer and patient waiting, without giving up hope, without getting weary in deeds of love, and without ceasing to proclaim the Word just as purely and clearly and lovingly as always. But woe to her if she thinks that adding human means will do it, where God’s word was rejected, and sevenfold woe to her if she, fearing to lose also her last hearers, attempts to keep them with human ties but neglects to preach the Word for judgment and grace, purely and clearly and lovingly! It can be very tempting to do such a thing. When people are not coming to church, God’s word is being diluted with lots of other things that are attractive to sinful human nature. The methods vary according to the taste of the people that one is eager to reach. But the consequences are just as disastrous in every case. One gets a public instead of a congregation. One substitutes religious interest for faith. One connects the people to activities, projects and entertaining events, but not to Christ. Of course, it is quite possible to get a lot of people to come together! Captivating speakers and popular musicians will often attract large audiences. Hundreds of examples of the entertainment offered by the churches are frequently advertised in the newspapers, on community bulletin boards, and on bill boards along our highways. This is the way that churches go, when they no longer dare to trust only and solely in God’s word and sacrament. [Bo Giertz, Christ’s Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2010), 105-107]
Pr. Timothy Winterstein