Man longs to be righteous. It is his life goal whether he realizes it or not. And man by nature looks for a cause of righteousness in himself. When you ask a child, “Why are you out here playing instead of picking up your room like I told you?” you know what sort of thing you can expect to hear in response. Your child will try to justify himself: “This belongs out here and I’m putting it away.” “I was picking up toys in the living room instead, because I knew you’d want me to do it.” “I heard the baby crying and went to help.” “My brother was in the room and wouldn’t let me pick up.” You don’t have to teach children to do this. Self-justification comes easily to man.
Now this isn’t to say that such children aren’t Christians. The sinful nature even of Christians will still tend toward self-justification. But while the unbelieving world persists in its attempts at self-justification, Christians repent of such attempts and look to Jesus for their righteousness. The child who moments ago was pleading his own innocence can be brought to the realization that he was breaking the Fourth Commandment and sinning in the sight of God. You speak God’s Law to him and the Holy Spirit cuts him to the heart. The child can look to Christ in faith and receive forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ. You speak that forgiveness to him when he confesses his sin. And the child is righteous: not with a righteousness of his own, but with the righteousness of Christ.
Justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ: this is the only way man can be righteous before God. As the Apostle Paul writes in Galatians 2, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). And again in Romans 3, “For all have sinned and lack the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gif, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:23-25).
That is the Gospel. Jesus alone is our righteousness. Yet there are other teachings that masquerade as the Gospel in the Church. These other gospels promise righteousness, but end up driving man back toward self-justification. Other gospels have been a problem in the Church for her entire existence. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:6-9).
Now the pure Gospel is a delight. We could desire nothing more. The Son of God was made man for us men and for our salvation. He fulfilled the Law. He bore our sin and its wages, going even to death for our sake. He rose from the dead, restoring to us the hope of eternal life, and ascended into heaven, bringing man to the throne of God. What on earth could be the cause of perverting this Gospel?
There is one reason why another gospel exists, and it is because instead of clinging firmly to the Word of God and teaching it, men have proclaimed their own word.1 And why have they proclaimed their own word? Here we could list many reasons. Certainly the devil is at work. But he must appeal to man and get man to heed him. To what does the devil appeal? The devil appeals to man’s unbelief. The sinful flesh is by nature opposed to God and doesn’t want to think rightly about him. The devil appeals to man’s sinful passions, giving permission to carry out those things that are abominations in the sight of God, and thus men love darkness rather than the light. We must stand firm against perversions that result from unbelief and indulging the passions of the flesh, though I suspect that has more to do with Dr. Korcok and Dr. Koontz’s presentations.
But how does the devil pervert the Gospel in the Church, among people who do have faith and uphold God’s commandments? The devil has had great success appealing to two faculties: reason and emotion. We will spend the rest of this session examining reason and emotion in turn and considering what the misuse of them means both for the Gospel and for Christian education.
The Right Use of Reason
Nicodemus came to Jesus by night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (Jn. 3:2). Nicodemus was being reasonable. You could even reduce his opening argument to a syllogism. Major premise: All men who heal the sick, turn water into wine, and restore sight to the blind are teachers from God. Minor premise: Jesus, you are a man who heals the sick, turns water into wine, and restores sight to the blind. Conclusion: Jesus, you are a teacher from God. Tada! Behold the wonders of human reason! Yet see also its shortcoming. Nicodemus doesn’t conclude that Jesus is God. Nicodemus wouldn’t allow that option in his major premise. He concludes that Jesus “a teacher from God” and that “God is with him,” but human reason couldn’t figure how God could be standing right there in human flesh.
Jesus does not respond with a syllogism, or with anything else that human reason could grasp. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn. 3:3). This is a simple and true statement, as simple and true as if someone said, “The ocean is big” or “Mountains are tall.” But reason won’t have it. The conversation continues, and Nicodemus is trying to figure how a man could enter into his mother’s womb and be born again. Finally his reason founders and in utter frustration he asks, “How can these things be?” (Jn. 3:9).
That can be a very dangerous question when it comes to the things of God. “How can these things be?” It is reason’s demand to be satisfied. But there are some things reason will never comprehend. The heretic Arius in the third century couldn’t understand how God could be one God and three persons, and so, in his mind, Jesus had to be a creature. He couldn’t understand how a Father and Son could have both existed from eternity when every other son has come into existence after his father. Arius could not satisfy his reason with the Word of God, so he satisfied it by making up something else that made sense to him.
Now is it nonsensical that God is one God and at the same time three persons? No. That makes perfect sense to God. It just doesn’t make sense to his fallen and corrupt creatures. And mark this well: our reason is corrupt. It doesn’t function rightly. How easily are we manipulated with soundbites, with conclusions that have no premises? How often do we think we’re being reasonable and then someone points out a gaping hole in our argument to which we were blind? This is why Christians have long retained the study of formal logic in education. Our reason must be taught to function rightly.
Though even with a rightly-functioning reason, there are still certain things that are simply beyond us. “Tree things are too wonderful for me,” Agur says in Proverbs 30, “four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin” (Prov. 30:18-19). Shakespeare wrote a whole play about how we can’t understand the way of a man with a virgin. Love doesn’t make sense. That’s one of the points of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.2 In the play, a man named Lysander is in love with Hermia, and they’re running away to get married. Due to a mixup on the part of mischievous Puck, Lysander’s eyes are anointed with the juice of a special flower while he’s sleeping. The effect: he’ll fall madly in love with the next creature he sees when he awakes. That creature happens to be Helena, who knows how much Lysander loves Hermia. As Lysander passionately pleads his love to Helena, she says, “Yet Hermia still loves you. Then be content.” Ten Lysander appeals to reason for his change of mind:
Content with Hermia? No, I do repentA Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, sc. 2
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia, but Helena I love.
Who will not change a raven for a dove?
The will of man is by his reason sway’d,
And reason says you are the worthier maid.
Tings growing are not ripe until their season;
So I, being young, till now ripe not to reason;
And touching now the point of human skill,
Reason becomes the marshal to my will…3
The audience knows what has happened, and so Lysander’s speech is hysterical. There is a reason for his current state, but he has no idea what it is. And so, when he employs his reason and tries to explain something that is beyond him, it’s plain for everyone to see that he is not being the least bit reasonable. There’s only one way he could know how things actually stood, and that is if someone who actually knew what was going on told him.
Jesus makes this point with Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony… No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn. 3:11, 13). In other words, “Nicodemus, you can’t stick your mind up into heaven like a periscope and take a look around for yourself. Your weak mental powers can’t fathom the things of God. It is completely unreasonable for you to attempt to do that of which you are incapable. The most reasonable thing you can do is listen to someone who has firsthand knowledge of these matters and can bear witness about them. No one on earth has been up in heaven except the Son of Man, who has descended from heaven and now stands before you. So be sensible and listen to me.”
Thus Jesus teaches us to distinguish between two uses of reason. The Church has called them the magisterial and ministerial uses of reason. With the magisterial use of reason, reason is the master and teacher. When you’re considering whether or not you should go for an evening stroll down the middle of the interstate, it’s good for reason to make the decision. But when it comes to the things of God, reason cannot be the master. God owes no explanation to our weak and corrupt reason, and we probably wouldn’t understand it if he offered one. So when it comes to the things of God, reason must bend the knee and say, “God, this might not make sense to my reason, but that says more about the state of my reason that it says about what is ultimately reasonable. Therefore, I will trust your Word. I trust that you know your own nature better than I do, so I will believe that you are triune, as you make clear in your Word, and that Jesus is fully God and fully man, as your Word also says. I will believe that Baptism saves and the Lord’s Supper is the body and blood of Christ, not because I know how these things can be, but because you say so in your Word.” This is the ministerial use of reason. Reason takes a place of subservience to the Word of God. It is still acceptable to ask “why?” or “how?” of God. But if his Word doesn’t give the answer, then we content ourselves with what God has revealed and don’t try to pry into what he hasn’t.
Now let’s put reason to the test and take up a theological question that has direct bearing on Christian education, a theological question that reason often muddles: Can infants have faith in Jesus? Many would respond, “Well, no, infants can’t have faith, because they can’t understand anything yet.” How, then, are we to regard infants in the Church? If they can’t have faith, then they aren’t saved by the means given in Scripture: “by grace you have been saved through faith” (Eph. 2:8). If infants aren’t saved through faith, then through what? Reason fumbles about in the darkness and invents a false gospel, such as the age of accountability, the teaching that children are automatically saved until they reach an age when they understand enough either to accept or reject Jesus.4 No matter the heresy that follows from a denial of infant faith, the result is the creation of a strange class within the Church—a group of people who aren’t saved by faith—and the question becomes: what do we do with them? How do we bring them up? How do we regard them?
Those who deny infant faith, if they’re being consistent with their theology, will treat children as potential Christians or Christians-by-default, but not as actual Christians. The education of children will then focus on building knowledge over piety and will attempt to habituate children to the sort of life they are to lead once they become real Christians. The child will probably be good at Bible trivia games and will go to Sunday School in place of going to church and will be taught more about morals than doctrine. In other words, the child’s life becomes a life of preparation and practice for a future living of the Christian life, but is not an actual living of the Christian life.
This heresy is child abuse. It leaves children wondering what they are and what their relation is to God. It makes them constantly strive to become something, but gives no assurance of having reached that point, since it all rests on the child’s future decision. So you see, the heresy of denying infant faith has consequences that reach far beyond infancy and trouble the conscience through all of life. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, so what of children who are taught that they can’t fear, love, and trust in God until they reach a certain age? False doctrine never made anyone wise.
Contrast this with what the Bible teaches. David says to the Lord in Psalm 22, “You are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God” (Ps. 22:9-10). Jesus refers to the children around him as “these little ones who believe in me” (Mt. 18:6). These passages, and others like them, make it clear that infants can have faith in Jesus. And why couldn’t they? We’re not responsible for conjuring up our own faith, as if faith were a work or virtue of ours. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). And this says something very comforting about Christian faith generally. If the infant, who is helpless, has nothing, and can do nothing, can have faith that clings to Jesus and receives his righteousness, then salvation is entirely apart from works, and no skill, power, or ability of our own is ever required to make us righteous before God.
With this view of faith, namely, that infants can have faith in Jesus and that by believing in him they are righteous with his righteousness—with this view of faith, we treat our children not as Christians-in-training, but as real, actual Christians, who have the same faith we have, who receive the same righteousness we receive, who belong to Christ as we belong to Christ. This determines the education we will give our children. We will have them baptized, first of all, so that their sins are washed away and they receive the Holy Spirit to preserve their faith and war against their sinful flesh. We will bring our Christian children to church with us. We won’t keep them from the Divine Service or send them to some alternative for the second-class citizens of the kingdom of heaven. No! We will have them in the pew with us: hearing the same Word of God, praying the same prayers, singing the same hymns. We will recognize that our children struggle with sin just as we do, and can have troubled consciences just as we do, and need to hear the forgiveness of sins just as we do, and experience all things of the Christian life just as we do.
When a child is afraid of the dark, we don’t merely say, “It’s just the dark. There’s nothing to be afraid of”—as true as that is—but we say, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not over come it” (Jn. 1:5), “[O Lord,] even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Ps. 139:12), “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life” (Ps. 121:6-7).
When a child is scared that there’s a monster under the bed, we don’t scoff and ridicule. Are there not evil beings seeking our destruction? “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But Jesus has bound the devil and plundered his goods. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). “Tough Satan would devour me / Let angel guards sing o’er me. / This child of God shall meet no harm” (LSB 880:4).
When a child asks a question about God, we don’t teach doctrine on the basis of “because I said so” and “you can find out the reason when you’re older.” No! The child’s faith feeds on the same Word of God that ours needs for its sustenance, and so we speak God’s Word. We don’t operate our homes like the papacy, in which a pope declares an interpretation of Scripture and everyone has to believe it just because he said so. Rather, the Word of God can speak for himself in our homes and we give that Word to our children.
When a child sins, we don’t brush it off, as if he didn’t know any better or is still growing into the Ten Commandments and doesn’t have to worry about them just yet. No, we confront sin with the Law of God and speak forgiveness for the sake of Christ. The goal of repentance is not merely restitution or the resolve to do better next time, but is to receive the forgiveness of sins and a good conscience. Christian children are actual Christians who can feel and think and experience things that we tend to associate with adults: true remorse and sorrow over sin, the pricks of a bad conscience, the desire to keep God’s commandments, the longing to hear the words, “I forgive you,” hunger and thirst for righteousness. They feel and think and experience these things not because they’re really mature for their age or mentally advanced, but because they’re Christians. Christ has made them such, so we treat them as such.
The Greatest Misuse of Reason
You’ve seen with the example of infant faith how damaging misused reason can be. Misused reason leads to uncertainty about being righteous before God and it leads to a malformed mind. And we haven’t even fully delved into the greatest misuse of human reason when it comes to the things of God. The greatest misuse of human reason is to suppose that our righteousness in the sight of our fellow man is our righteousness before God. Human reason sees the sense in works righteousness, but can’t grasp how bad we actually are or why we would need someone else’s righteousness.
Reason thinks about righteousness the way the Pharisee does in Luke 18. “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’” He thinks he’s speaking reasonably. Obviously he can’t stand before God and claim to have kept the Ten Commandments. But he’s kept some of them better than some others, at least in his opinion, so instead of comparing himself to the Law of God, he compares himself to other men.
His reason also pulls another trick. He boasts of doing something that God didn’t even command him to do: “I fast twice a week.” There’s no law about that in the Bible. But here’s how reason works: “Fasting is impressive. People admire that sort of strict devotion to God. Therefore, since it’s impressive in the sight of man, it must be impressive in the sight of God as well.” Reason can be ridiculous. And God is not impressed. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Mt. 15:7-9; Is. 29:13).
This is the only way self-righteousness works. The person who would be righteous of himself must be so 1) based on comparison with others and 2) based on his self-chosen works. We must protect our children from both of these things.
I mentioned that self-justification comes easily to man. That means all men find it easy to point out the faults of others for the purpose of justifying themselves. Those raising young children can testify that hardly a day goes by without one of them trying to be in the right not based on his innocence, but based on the guilt of one of the others. “No one’s perfect, and he’s less perfect than I am.” Well guess what? That means nothing to God. He doesn’t examine how well you stack up in comparison with others. He examines you according to his Law and declares, “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (Jas. 2:10). And Jesus preaches, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:3).
God tolerates no righteousness by comparison, and that means we don’t either. When children try to be righteous by not being as unrighteous as someone else, we don’t accept it. Such comparison does appeal to our reason. Something about it makes sense not only to the one pleading it, but also to the one who has to judge the matter. But no. There is no righteousness in being more or better than another. There is only righteousness in Jesus.
Just as justification-by-comparison comes naturally to us, so also it is natural to seek righteousness from self-invented works. The Pharisee was proud that he had coined his own work of fasting twice a week, and he trusted that his made up currency would be worth something to God simply because it was worth something to man. When the little boy ignores the command to pick up in his room and instead picks up toys in the living room or helps with the baby, we must be as unimpressed with him as God is with the Pharisee. “I didn’t tell you to do that. I told you to do this over here. God says, ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ Why would I be pleased that you’ve ignored me?” It might seem strange convicting a child of sin when he’s doing something as helpful as picking up toys or caring for a sibling. But if the child is willfully disobeying parents and instead boasting of self-chosen works, then no matter how well he was caring for the baby, it was a sin.
This holds in the classroom as well. The helpful student who wants to be of service in any number of invented ways but doesn’t actually do what he’s told does not need to be commended for his servant heart, but condemned for despising authority and preferring his own works to the ones God actually gave him to do. It might seem harsh, but it only offends our reason; it doesn’t offend God at all. He wants us to uphold his Law and his Son’s righteousness. He does not want us encouraging kids to be Pharisees. To encourage that is to encourage a false gospel and a false righteousness.
Concluding Thoughts on Reason
There are many other things that could be said about human reason and the heresies it contrives. Note that every one of those heresies attacks our righteousness before God and our certainty of that righteousness. Note also that the cure for all of these vain imaginings of reason is the Word of God. God is more reasonable than we are, knows more than we do, and can speak clearly about the way things really are. Our reason can’t storm heaven, and, in its fallen state, probably wouldn’t rightly understand what was going on even if it could. Reason must therefore sit like Mary at the feet of Jesus and hold fast to the one thing needful and not presume to teach God what’s what.
I know my faith is founded(LSB 587:1, “I Know My Faith Is Founded”)
On Jesus Christ, my God and Lord;
And this my faith confessing,
Unmoved I stand on His sure Word.
Our reason cannot fathom
The truth of God profound;
Who trusts in human wisdom
Relies on shifting ground.
God’s Word is all-sufficient,
It makes divinely sure;
And trusting in its wisdom,
My faith shall rest secure.
Feelings: Potent, Changeable, Corrupt
We now come to that other human faculty to which the devil appeals in his attempt to spread false gospels. Reason was the first. Emotion is the second. By emotion I mean human feelings, such as joy and despair, longing and apathy, wonder and scorn, affection, and hatred. And I mean internal feelings, not physical ones, such as pain or itchiness. Our feelings are greatly informed by our senses, our experience of other people and the world around us. We typically associate feelings with the heart, which isn’t a wrong way of speaking. But we must expand the realm of feelings to the conscience as well. The conscience can feel peace in the forgiveness of sins or terror at the wrath of God.
Three things characterize our feelings. First, our feelings are potent. They can be very strong and intense and leave lasting marks on the memory, for good or for ill. Strong emotions can overcome the will and drive men to do things that they don’t want to do. Some emotions so exert themselves that people would prefer physical pain instead of continuing to experience that emotion. Feelings are potent.
Second, feelings are changeable. I don’t just mean that they’re able to be changed, but that they’re fickle and flighty, that they change for no apparent reason. The opening lines of The Merchant of Venice illustrate the point. Antonio says,
In sooth I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you.
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn.
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.5
Men have been studying this play for over 400 years, and Shakespeare scholars still aren’t agreed why Antonio is sad.6 It may be that all attempts to figure it out are futile, just as at times we have much ado to know ourselves and can’t say why we feel the way we do. Solanio, Antonio’s friend, seeks to figure out why Antonio is sad, and when it becomes clear that he won’t figure it out, he says,
Ten let us say you are sad
Because you are not merry; and ’twere as easy
For you to laugh and leap, and say you are merry
Because you are not sad.7
It’s humorous because it makes sense. If you don’t know why you’re sad, then be happy. But it’s also humorous because it’s impossible. While emotions are easily changed, we can only manipulate and control them to a certain extent. We can choose what sorts of things we take in, what we expose ourselves to, what we occupy ourselves with, though even then we don’t have ultimate control of what we experience on earth. But nothing can prevent the sudden bout of melancholy. Man thinks he should be able to do this. I daresay that much of our occupation with screens is an attempt to attain pleasant feelings and avoid unpleasant ones. But no attempt at emotional control guarantees anything. Our emotions change like inconstant winds, whether we like it or not. Feelings are changeable.
Third, and we saw a hint of this in the previous point, our feelings are corrupt. Our feelings do not function rightly. And this shouldn’t surprise us. We readily grant that our reason is fallen and corrupt, that it operates rightly some of the time, but malfunctions at other times. Our feelings are as much a part of our fallen human nature as our reason is, and thus we must confess the same corruption about our feelings.
This seems almost heresy in our day. Who are you to question the feelings of others or call those feelings wrong or corrupt? To which I would say, “What on earth makes you think feelings are trustworthy? They’re left, right, up, down, here, and there and can forsake you in a moment and for no reason. I wouldn’t trust my emotions to tell me the truth any more than I would trust the entrails of a goat or the oracle of Delphi.” Nevertheless, many people still regard their feelings as the ultimate source of truth, both because of the strong persuasion of their potency and because of their
location within the self. Men will trust what is powerful and men will trust what is in themselves. The devil thus has easy work spreading a false gospel by appealing to man’s feelings.
The False Gospel of Enthusiasm
And what is the false gospel that appeals to man’s feelings? Simply put, it is that your emotions are a better source and assurance of righteousness than the Word of God is. The devil spreads this false gospel both within and outside of the Church. Among pagans, the devil has formed religions around ecstatic group experiences, as with the Bacchanalia of Rome, around prophets who have special access to the divine, as with Islam, around personal meditation and spiritual surrender, as with Buddhism. These false religions all have in common the exaltation of emotion, experience, and supposed direct revelation over the written Word of God.
The devil promotes these same things in the Church, and we can refer to this false gospel with the name “enthusiasm.” The false gospel of enthusiasm teaches that man can have access to God immediately, meaning apart from means, apart from the Gospel and the Sacraments. Practically speaking, this means that people are taught to think less of the Word of God and more highly of their own emotional experiences.
Martin Luther had to deal with this false teaching in his day. Andreas Karlstadt preached and wrote against the Sacraments, arguing that Baptism couldn’t cleanse from sin since it was just water, and the Lord’s Supper couldn’t be anything more than bread and wine. The Spirit worked directly, Karlstadt said, not through these things. Luther lambasts Karlstadt’s position:
But should you ask how one gains access to this same lofty spirit they do not refer you to the outward gospel but to some imaginary realm, saying: Remain in “self abstraction” where I now am and you will have the same experience. A heavenly voice will come, and God himself will speak to you. If you inquire further as to the nature of this “self abstraction,” you will fnd that they know as much about it as Dr. Karlstadt knows of Greek and Hebrew. Do you not see here the devil, the enemy of God’s order? With all his mouthing of the words, “Spirit, Spirit, Spirit,” he tears down the bridge, the path, the way, the ladder, and all the means by which the Spirit might come to you. Instead of the outward order of God in the material sign of baptism and the oral proclamation of the Word of God he wants to teach you, not how the Spirit comes to you but how you come to the Spirit. They would have you learn how to journey on the clouds and ride on the wind. They do not tell you how or when, whither or what, but you are to experience what they do.8
Do you see what Karlstadt has done? He has cast aside the Word and Sacraments and substituted them with emotion and experience. He has turned man in on himself to seek the Spirit internally instead of in the external Word. Now remember with the misuse of reason, man ends up trusting in his own works. Well guess what? With the misuse of emotion, man does the exact same thing. If Christ does not come to man in the Word and Sacraments, then man has to find his way to Christ, and that means seeking, and passionately desiring, and making oneself worthy of the Spirit.
Luther notes how Karlstadt has turned even Christ’s gifts into human works:
What Christ has said and referred to the inner life of faith, this man applies to outward, self-contrived works, even to the point of making the Lord’s Supper and the recognition and remembrance of Christ a human work, whereby we in like manner, in “passionate ardor” and (as they stupidly put it) with “outstretched desire,” put ourselves to death.9
Thus Karlstadt leaves us looking to our works. Those who follow him end up chasing emotional high after emotional high, subjecting themselves to preachers and musicians who will manipulate their feelings and guide them in their spiritual journey with no hope of ever arriving anywhere. And what certainty, then, does man have that he is righteous before God? He has no certainty. When he has pleasant emotions, then perhaps he can convince himself he’s righteous. And when those pleasant emotions change for no reason, then man must despair of righteousness. Looking to the emotions for certainty of righteousness is a widespread disease these days. The failure of the Enlightenment, the rise of postmodernism, and a generation raised on Disney’s “follow your heart” and “be true to yourself” poppycock has led to a culture that worships the emotions and regards them as the highest source of truth. We must guard our children against this assault on Christ’s righteousness and teach our children to regard emotions rightly and indeed to feel rightly.
Catechizing the Emotions: Keeping Emotion in Its Place
Just as our reason by nature doesn’t function rightly, and thus we teach it theologically to know its place and train it to improve practically through the study of logic, so also, since our emotions don’t function rightly, we must teach them as well, and in the same way as we teach our reason. First, we must teach our emotions to know their place, and second, we must train them to feel the way they should.
The account of Nicodemus is helpful for reminding reason of its place. The account of the Canaanite woman, recorded in Matthew 15, is similarly helpful for reminding emotions of their place. Jesus had withdrawn to the region of Tyre and Sidon, and as he was going along, a woman came up crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon” (Mt. 15:22). She had heard the report about Jesus and knew he was the one to see about her daughter. The Lord is merciful and gracious, and she expected to receive mercy and grace. “But he
did not answer her a word.” Well what is she supposed to do now? She knows what she heard, but her personal experience of Jesus isn’t aligning with the Word that she heard. The Word says that Jesus is the gracious Son of God who wants to have mercy on man. But her experience is telling her that she’s gotten it all wrong and Jesus wants nothing to do with her.
What does she do? She persists in asking Jesus to help her. She holds that the Word about Jesus is more trustworthy than her experience of Jesus and the accompanying emotions. She finally throws herself in front of Jesus, making him stop in his tracks, and says, “Lord, help me.” Jesus responds, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” What should she feel at this comment? What does it matter? She knows what she heard about Jesus. She says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” “Yes, Lord, I’ll be a dog, a lowly, little, begging dog. And you’re the master, as I’ve heard, and better than any earthly master. If even mere men feed their puppies, then you, my gracious master, my Lord and my God, you will do even more and better than that.”
And Jesus gives it up. He says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” The whole thing was just a ruse! Jesus was only pretending to be the woman’s enemy. Why? Isn’t that dishonest? Not at all. Jesus has made known the truth about himself in his Word, and that’s how he wants to be known: through his Word, not through our experience. So he took away everything else in which this woman might trust—her emotions, her experience, her own powers and abilities—and he left her with only the Word. She for her part determined to know him only through that Word, and she wasn’t disappointed.
There’s a woman who ignored her emotions and personal experience of Jesus and clung to his Word alone. And we all can see that she did well. She didn’t lose anything by telling her emotions that they were wrong. Her experience wasn’t true to reality, and she knew it. The Word of Jesus is true to reality, and she held fast to that.
Catechizing the Emotions: Learning to Feel Rightly
Remembering how things went with the Canaanite woman helps us keep our emotions and experience in their place. Ten there’s the matter of instructing the emotions in how to feel rightly. Let me be clear: God does intend us to feel. He made us with emotions. Our goal is not some sort of stoicism that keeps a straight face when it’s happy and keeps a dry eye when someone dies. But neither do we want emotions running rampant and taking their own corrupt course. We want to feel rightly.
The best way to catechize the emotions is to sing God’s Word. You can chant the psalms. But for singing God’s Word metrically and memorably, nothing beats good Lutheran hymns. I don’t hold them up as replacements of God’s Word, but as preachers of God’s Word. Lutherans don’t sing to emote, meaning, we don’t sing in order to express whatever emotion we happen to be feeling at the time. No, as regards the emotions, Lutherans sing according to how we should feel, not how we do feel Perhaps the greatest example of this is with Philip Nicolai. He was a pastor in Unna, Germany in the late 16th century when a plague broke out. Over the course of 6 months, 1,400 people of the town died. Nicolai wrote during this time as a means of coping with all the death. And he wrote a little book called Mirror of Joy, in which he reflected on all the blessings of eternal life in Christ. He also appended some hymns to this book, including How Lovely Shines the Morning Star. Listen to these words:
Thou, mighty Father, in Thy Son(TLH 343:5, “How Lovely Shines the Morning Star)
Didst love me ere Thou hadst begun
This ancient world’s foundation.
Thy Son hath made a friend of me,
And when in spirit Him I see,
I joy in tribulation.
What bliss Is this!
He that liveth To me giveth
Nothing me from Him can sever.
We know what we would naturally feel in the midst of plague and incessant death. We would feel misery and sorrow and hopelessness. But why would we feel that way? Those feelings aren’t right. Why would we have anything other than joy? Christ has died our death and risen from the dead. He has given us his eternal life, which we begin to enjoy even now, and he will take us to himself. “I joy in tribulation,” Nicolai sings. And so do we, because that’s the right emotion to feel.
Sing that hymn with your children. Sing all the great Lutheran hymns. Sing “Lord, Thee I Love with All My Heart” and “In Tee, Lord, Have I Put My Trust” and “From God Can Nothing Move Me” and “What Is the World to Me” and “If Thou But Trust in God to Guide Tee” and “From God Can Nothing Move Me” and “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.” Sing hymns by Martin Luther and Paul Gerhardt and Johann Heermann and Philip Nicolai and Tomas Kingo. Those hymns will teach your emotions to feel rightly. And when your emotions don’t feel rightly, then sing those hymns, and put emotion in its place and rejoice in Christ whether you feel joyous or not. You may not be able to stop feeling your emotions, but you can choose to stop listening to them when they’re wrong, and Lutheran hymns are a great help in that.
Addressing the Conscience (Conclusion)
Remember that I said we must extend the realm of feelings to include the conscience as well as the heart. I noted the main feelings of the conscience: peace in the forgiveness of sins or terror at the wrath of God. It’s true that our hearts have been “sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Heb. 10:22). That means that we have a good conscience because of having Christ as our righteousness. That doesn’t mean that our conscience will always tell us the truth. Sometimes the conscience feels at peace when it has sinned, and sometimes the conscience feels turmoil even when God is at peace with us through Jesus. Taking away false peace from a Christian child isn’t difficult. You speak God’s Law to the child, the commandment that the child has broken, and through it the Holy Spirit works contrition, that is, sorrow over sin. The greater art is comforting a troubled conscience. It’s really not hard to do. It’s simply a matter of speaking the Gospel. But we’re too apt to let our reason speak freely or let our emotions get the better of us and muddle everything. When it comes to comforting a troubled conscience, remember these two things, which also sum up this whole presentation: 1) the Word of God alone will always tell us the truth, and 2) Jesus alone is our righteousness.
The boy might reason that he’s sinned and therefore can’t be righteous before God. But Jesus says to the sinner, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Mt. 9:2). The boy might feel that his sin is so bad that it could never be forgiven. But Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). The boy might experience the anger of Dad, or receive his fifth spank of the day, or cry until he has no tears left to cry, and know that he is not righteous. But Jesus is righteous. The Word of God says so. And the Word of God says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). The Word of God will never lie to you. The devil will lie. He will hold up his other gospel, yet another variation on the righteousness of works, which is no righteousness at all. That false gospel will appeal to our reason. It will feel right. And we will say, “Down with my corrupt reason and emotions, and give me the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” And Jesus will give it. He died so you could have that Gospel; he will not hold it back. And his Word alone will preserve you and your children in true righteousness.
In Tee, Lord, have I put my trust;(TLH 524:1, “In Tee, Lord, Have I Put My Trust)
Leave me not helpless in the dust,
Let me not be confounded.
Let in Ty Word
My faith, O Lord,
Be always firmly grounded.
1 cf. Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. I, pgs. 22-23, “What, then, causes the division in the Church? They are not the result of climatic influences, as some say, nor of racial differences, as other say. They are due solely to the fact that
men arose within the Church and gained a following who did not continue in the Word of Christ’s Apostles and
Prophets, but proclaimed their own word and as a natural consequence impaired, or even wiped out, the differentia
specifica of the Christian religion, justification by faith, without the deeds of the Law.”
2 This theme shows itself in the shift of Demetrius and Lysander’s love for the women in the play. The play also concludes with three newly-married couples laughing as they watch a tragedy.
3 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, sc. 2
4 John MacArthur, for example, holds to this age of accountability: https://www.gty.org/library/Articles/A264/TeAge-of-Accountability (accessed 7-2-21)
5 Te Merchant of Venice, Act I, sc. 1
6 Some speculate that Antonio is sad because he’s anxious about the outcome of his trade ventures at sea (which Antonio denies in the play). Others speculate that Antonio is sad because his good friend Bassanio is getting married, and thus Antonio won’t have as close a friendship with Bassanio. Yet in his comedies, Shakespeare associates good things with marriage. Others suggest that Antonio is sad because he can’t meet Bassanio’s financial needs as well as he would like. But Antonio is sad even before he becomes aware of Bassanio’s need. My opinion is that from the outset of the play Shakespeare sets up Antonio as a Christ figure: a man of sorrows who’s willing to give up everything for his friend, and who for the sake of his friend puts himself at the mercy of his enemy, the Jew, who wants to kill him for being generous and lending without interest.
7 The Merchant of Venice, Act I, sc. 1
8 Against the Heavenly Prophets; Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 40, pg. 147
9 Ibid., pg. 148