Category Archives: Dennis Ngien

Preaching Is God’s Audible Address to Sinners

The uniqueness of Luther’s theology of preaching lies in that preaching is not mere human speech about God; rather it is God’s own speech to people, which corresponds to God’s own action. God’s word acts and thus accomplishes his will, but through the agency of human speech. Preaching then is not the preacher’s discursive reflection about God and life, an exercise distinctive of the custom of the university, but is God’s audible address to sinners in need so that he might confer good on them, and clothe them with Christ’s righteousness. The preacher speaks and, in his speaking, the justifying action of God is accomplished. God creates through his opposite (i.e., the preacher) the object of his love – a people no longer under divine wrath. Preaching is not a rehashing of the old stories, nor is it a memorial speech about God’s deeds. [Gustaf] Wingren’s words elucidate Luther’s view:

[P]reaching, in so far as it is Biblical preaching, is God’s own speech to men, is very difficult to maintain in practice. Instead it is very easy to slip into the idea that preaching is only speech about God. Such a slip, once made, gradually alters the picture of God, so that he becomes the far-off deistic God who is remote from the preached word and is only spoken about as we speak about someone who is absent.

Dennis Ngien, “Luther As A Spiritual Adviser”, pages 157-158. Wingren quote from “The Living Word”, page 19.

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Which Came First: Forgiveness or Repentance, Part Two

More from Dennis Ngien. Part one is here.

Hearing God’s pronouncement of his forgiveness can be a very powerful motive for us to seek reconciliation with him. For instance, when someone has broken a relationship, the word that the wounded party has forgiven the guilty one can serve as a strong impetus causing the offender to seek reconciliation. Our repentance is not a condition of grace, but only a response to grace. Whereas “legal repentance” takes the form, “Repent, and if you do, you will be forgiven,” “evangelical repentance” takes this form, “Christ has given himself for you for the forgiveness of your sins; therefore, repent! Receive his forgiving grace in repentance.” The latter is Luther’s – the gift is primary, and the response secondary. By putting the emphasis on the primacy of the word, Luther gave priority to the responsive rather than causative character of faith.

The justifying word, “I forgive you,” is the content of the gospel, whereas repentance is our response to the gospel, not our causing it. “[O]nly as the word is maintained as the work of God, does faith retain the character of receptivity or reception of other gifts” (Charles Arand, “That I May Be His Own“, page 167). This, too, is in accord with Luther’s sacramental theology, in which God gives himself in his Son. In the Eucharist, Christ spoke the justifying word which effects forgiveness in us. The words of Christ’s institution summon from us an unconditional response of faith and repentance; they foment a sacramental piety, which is not contingent upon any human invention of pious works or pious desire. A conversion (repentance and faith) that is not rooted in God’s justifying word-act, specifically in the mass, is not true conversion. The sacrament is purely God’s action on our behalf, to which we respond with gratitude and thanksgiving. Unlike Zwingli who stressed the signifying character of the sacrament for which thanksgiving was rendered, Luther saw the causative character of God’s word in it as the source of gratitude. We thank God for coming into our lives and redeeming us as the recipients of the inestimable benefits promised in Christ’s last will. It is precisely by our unworthiness that we become the object of God’s grace. Therefore when faced with doubts or a lack of assurance, Luther did not ask, “How is your devotional life or prayer life? How about your good works?”, instead he exhorted believers to heed Christ’s words, the very “sum and substance of the whole gospel.” He encouraged believers to accept and affirm God’s word of promise given in Jesus Christ through the mass (and other means), quite apart from any emotions they might experience. We are to hear Christ’s words, by which our identity is forged and by which we are transformed into images of the one whose innocence we receive in a happy exchange for our sins. In the mass, we experience the power of his re-creating word at work. In Pannenberg’s estimation, “We (thereby) receive a new identity, but we do not possess it separately, in our separate existence apart from Christ, but only ‘in Christ’, which is to say in faith that unites us with Christ, with the Christ ‘outside ourselves’.”

With his emphasis on the objective nature of God’s work for us in Christ, Luther shunned the inward experiences of a subjective nature as a legitimate basis of assurances of any place before God. Not by introspection but only by ex-centricity – by looking outside ourselves (extra nobis) to God’s “speech act” in Jesus Christ can we find assurance. Our inner experience must not become primary, in which case we begin to turn away from faith in Christ to trust in ourselves. When this happens, we are reverting to righteousness by works as the outcome To Luther, the objective word of Christ is the anchor of faith, and the landmark of true piety. Faith cleaves to the sacrament, trusting that God’s word be done unto it. It is an anathema to attack Christ’s words, for to do so is to attack the gospel itself; to deny Christ’s words is to deny his justifying action on us, thus nullify the power and use of the sacrament.

Everything depends on these words. Every Christian should and must know them and hold them fast. He must never let anyone take them away from him by any other kind of teaching, even though it were an angel from heaven [Galatians 1:8]. They are words of life and of salvation, so that whoever believes in them has all his sins forgiven through that faith; he is a child of life and has overcome death and hell. Language cannot express how great and mighty these words are, for they are the sum and substance of the whole gospel. (Luther’s Works Volume 36, page 277)

Dennis Ngien, “Luther As A Spiritual Adviser“, pages 101-104

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Which Came First: Forgiveness or Repentance?

This is a section from Dennis Ngien’s book “Luther As A Spiritual Adviser“. I’m presenting it in a few parts because the section is long for a blog post. This is part one.

As regards the order of salvation, is forgiveness by God logically prior to our repentance, or repentance logically prior to forgiveness? To resolve this, we are necessarily confronted by the question: how does God forgive our sins? Does God forgive only when we repent? Some would say that God cannot forgive if we do not repent. And if God forgives the unrepentant, would he not be charged with condoning their sins? What are we to make of the liturgies of the Church which speak to the effect that “whoever repents of his sins may be forgiven.” Is it theologically accurate to speak of God’s forgiveness in this way, that our repentance is the prerequisite of God’s forgiveness? Though it is not entirely wrong to speak of it in this way, there is a hidden danger in it, for it may lead people to feel that repentance is something we must do in order to obtain, earn or deserve God’s forgiving grace. In that case, repentance becomes a “work” necessary for salvation, in which case we are no longer saved by grace alone. If repentance is a work necessary to achieve God’s forgiveness, then we are confronted with an acute problem that haunted Luther then and haunts our conscience now: how much work is necessary for salvation?

In the popular mind, repentance is defined as feeling sorrow for our sins. But to what extent are we really sorry for what we have done amiss, and to what degree are we simply sorry about the consequences of the sin? For instance, the child caught stealing money is very sorry, sorry for being caught and having to suffer the punishment for it, but not necessarily sorry for their criminal offence. Also if forgiveness is based on feeling sorrow, how can we be certain that we feel the right kind of sorrow for our sins? It is true that the Bible links forgiveness and repentance. But there is no evidence that repentance is a cause of God’s grace. For Jesus certainly pronounced forgiveness when there was no sign of repentance. At the cross, he uttered, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). Those who crucified Jesus showed no signs of repentance; on the contrary, they were getting much sadistic pleasure out of torturing him. Likewise Jesus shocked the Pharisees by proclaiming the opposite of what they wanted to hear, that the paralytic’s sins had been forgiven, despite no sign of repentance by the paralytic (Mark 2:5; Matthew 9:2; Luke 5:20). In the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the son was forgiven by the father. Was he forgiven only when he returned home, or because he returned home? Neither! The father’s attitude was always one of forgiveness, independent of the son’s disposition towards him. If anyone had known the mind of the father, he would have gone to the son in the far country with this good news: your father has forgiven you, let’s go  home. The truth of the matter is that the father’s attitude towards the son was not changed by the son’s returning home. The only change was that the son, by coming home, put himself in a position to recognize or appropriate the father’s forgiveness, not cause or condition it. The most succinct explanation of this was found in Luther’s Large Catechism, where he commented about the petition for forgiveness in the Lord’s Prayer:

Here again there is great need to call upon God and pray, “Dear Father, forgive our debts”. Not that he does not forgive sin even without and before our prayer; and he gave us the gospel, in which there is nothing but forgiveness, before we prayed or even thought of it. But the point here is for us to recognize and accept this forgiveness.

Luther caught this vision of God’s forgiveness as unconditionally given. It does not wait for us to repent or to pray for it. God’s forgiveness is thus prior to our repentance and prayer. His forgiving grace does not waver, and it refuses to abandon us. His love for us is completely realistic and unconditional, based at every point on the prior knowledge of the worst about us so that no future discovery about us could ever disenchant God in the way we so often become disillusioned about ourselves. The father has forgiven his son even in the far country, even before he repents, or before he feels sorry, or before he comes to his senses. But the son cannot be reconciled insofar as he remains aloof in the far country. He has to come home and “accept” his father’s forgiveness. Faith, as Paul Tillich aptly defined it, is “accepting our acceptance.” Forgiveness is already there, and all we need to do is to receive it and accept it. Nevertheless our acceptance by God does not depend upon our accepting his grace, for we are already accepted by God in Jesus Christ. It is a gift given to us. If our accepting causes God’s acceptance of us, then our salvation is not by grace alone. Therefore any understanding of salvation in a legal context in which we have to do something meritorious so as to earn God’s forgiveness was not part of Luther’s theology of grace. There is a causal relationship between forgiveness and repentance, Luther maintained. But it is never our repentance that causes God’s favour; rather, it is God’s forgiveness that causes our repentance. To invert the evangelical order of grace, making repentance prior to forgiveness, is to destroy sola gratia, for it regards God’s grace as conditional upon what we do. For Luther, God cannot be made gracious. The indicatives of grace are prior to the imperatives of obedience. Thus salvation must be understood in the evangelical context, in which the priority of the gospel and primacy of God’s justifying words reign so supremely that they effect a change in us, moving us towards repentance and faith.

More to come….

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Sinners, Sins, Christ, and Grace

Part of what it means to be in the community of faith is to be bearers of the sins, vices, sufferings and shames of God’s people. Pastorally, how do we restore a wayward sinner without condoning their sins? Some suggest an absolutely honest approach, that is, being vociferous about their failures all at once or disclosing more than that which they could bear, with the result that sheer despair or bitterness are the outcome. Such an approach is frequently brutal, resulting in self-righteous condemnation of the wrongdoer. Others tend toward an approach of absolute mercy, that is, for fear of offending the wrongdoer they withhold from them much of the truth regarding their faults or lie about them, as a result of which spiritual decay or loathing are the outcome. Such an approach is frequently turned into a loose condoning of sin, and may be guilty of loving what others hate and hating what others love. Some have proposed a middle road, steering between absolute honesty and absolute mercy, but leaning towards the latter. This may be practically helpful, since an effective pastor does not see all the bad and deny the good. Nor do they see all the good and deny the bad. They see both, but aim at the good, and what good may come out of bad as God wishes it to be. This is what a true theologian does, that is, to see evil for what it really is, without excusing it or condoning it, while simultaneously acknowledging the good as good.

For effective pastoral care, a pastor thus observes a fundamental difference between failure and hypocrisy, the former referring to those who truly try to live the Christian life but fail, the latter referring to those who pretend to be other than what they really are. To those who fail, we hold out the sweet voice of the gospel, in which consolation may be found. The central Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone is to be asserted not as the goal of life but as its presupposition. In line with this, those who fail should look not at their own deeds or lacks, but outside themselves at God’s promises found in Christ:

The Gospel commands us to look, not at our own 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 [i.e., God’s unconditional gift of salvation] is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive. (Luther’s Works Volume 26, page 387)

To the self-righteous hypocrite, we hold out the stern voice of the law, in which all acts of self-justification and self-pretense are exposed, and condemned. The law shows forth God’s wrath, accuses, judges, and condemns all that is not in Christ (Romans 4:15). This, too, is the work, the alien work, of the same loving God, who brings down the hypocrite in order to raise them up into God’s boundless mercy as his proper work. The pastor’s duty is not to assist their parishioners in the exercise of discover of sin through self-introspection, which might lead them away from God. Rather, the pastor is to lead them to the place of discerning the signs of God’s immeasurable grace, in the wake of which they come to a deeper apprehension of the evil within themselves. Yet this cannot be accomplished without God’s revelation. Thus Luther insists in his Meditation on Christ’s Passion on contemplation of “the earnest mirror, Christ” who exposes the sins of the wayward in order that he might bear them and carry them away by his cross and resurrection. The cross forces the self-righteous to ask the question, “Am I a sinner?,” while simultaneously fostering hope in the one who answers in the affirmative. The cross peels the mask off the evil that often poses as banality in modern culture. On the cross, just as sin is named for what it actually is, so it is conquered as it really is. This is what a true theologian does – to name sin as it really is, and name the cure for sin, which is Christ himself. An effective preacher holds out Christ not only as the revealer of sins but also as the remedy for them.

Dennis Ngien, “Luther As A Spiritual Adviser”, pages 70-72

Dennis Ngien

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