Jesus Only: Reflections on Bo Giertz’ “Hammer of God” and the Issue of Sanctification
First, let me advise you, dear reader, that if you do not know who Bo Giertz is, you must get to know him. And the best way to do that is to read his masterpiece, called in English translation, The Hammer of God. I have read it several times over the years, the first time being during my first year of being a pastor. And today I just finished it again. It is a quick read. It is surprising to me that Augsburg-Fortress still publishes the book still, since Giertz' novel is a devastating rebuttal of the deep theological error that has overtaken the ELCA.
In Hammer of God, Giertz takes on the issue of women's ordination and liberal theology. The book is, fundamentally, a devastating preaching of Law for all us who would dare approach God on our terms, instead of His. That is the message of the book, and today, as most of us have celebrated Transfiguration Sunday, I am particularly struck by the second part of Giertz' book titled, simply, "Jesus only," referring to the words of the Transfiguration account that when Moses and Elijah left, the disciples were left with Jesus only.
The second of three novellas in Hammer, tells the story of an eager young pastor who comes storming into a new parish assignment, with an older senior pastor whom he looks down upon as one who has not been "truly converted." The young man experiences a crisis of faith when he realizes that even Christians are sinful people, prone to the pettiness of spirit and poverty of soul that any other humans are. The pastor abandons the confidence he had placed in his own works of piety, and in his trust that only those who pray freely and free themselves from the "constraints" of the cobwebby forms of the Church's historic worship, can truly know and experience Christ. It all comes crashing down around him as he realizes that all his attention to his own interior life and works has robbed him of the vision of Jesus only. Christ, and Christ alone, must be his sure and certain defense, against the devil, the world and the sinful flesh: his own sinful flesh, which, in spite of his many efforts, he can never quiet and still. But then, he realizes what he most needs, the one thing needful is Jesus, only.
The pastor comes to understand that "that which once and for all and immediately is reckoned as yours in justification, will be worked in you little by little in sanctification." Reflecting on this reality, the young pastor realized that he was "privileged to believe all, appropriate the whole inheritance at the beginning of the road, that afterward through the long years he might draw upon it and invest it amidst the reality of the everyday life." (Giertz, 174-175).
The reality of sanctification in our lives is one that some pastors wish to side-step by preaching against sin, then announcing forgiveness, then leaving it at that. Frankly, they act and speak as if there only the first seven chapters in the Book of Romans, but not the rest.
Recently a pastor friend of mine opined on his blog that too many Lutheran pastors think that they can increase sanctification by preaching the Law. He is of course correct in his concern but ultimately goes wrong in that he fails adequately to understand that it is our task to teach and preach sanctification, the ongoing struggle against sin and the life of good works, in light of justification. Too many of our pastors think that by preaching against sin and preaching justification, they have preached sufficiently about Christ. But they have not. Preaching Good Friday and Easter, without the preaching of Pentecost is to offer a truncated Gospel.
Merely and only repeating the doctrine of justification, without preaching sanctification, is to offer only half the story of life in Christ. In both cases, both the matter of justification and sanctification, it is all about Jesus only. Sanctification is about growing into Christ, and growing up in Christ.
We must therefore speak about what Jesus does in our life and what He permits us to do as a result of our justification. As our Lutheran Confessions put it: "After a man has been justified through faith, then a true living faith works by love. Good works always follow justifying faith and are surely found with it—if it is true and living faith. Faith is never alone, but always has love and hope with it." (FC Ep. III.11).
In a desire to make sure we keep Jesus only in view there are some who have fallen into the trap of neglecting to speak clearly about the work of Jesus in our lives, as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit, precisely because of Jesus only, to do good works. Our Confessions are very clear about this reality when they assert:
Why? Not to merit God's favor, or to earn his love, but…as in justification, also in sanctification, because of Jesus only. To Him be the glory.